Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Eric Hansen, policy analyst at the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), who was one of the speakers at the 2015 Food Tank Summit in partnership with The George Washington University.
Food Tank (FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?
Eric Hansen (EH): Young people across the country are striving to enter careers in farming. But the challenges they face are immense. The average age of the American farmer is now 58 years old, and young people are not getting into agriculture fast enough to replace them. In the next 25 years, two-thirds of farmland is going to need to transition to new farmers. Who will take on stewardship of that land if we are at risk of losing a generation of farmers? How will our food be produced?
Young farmers themselves can lead the way to addressing these challenges. That’s why the NYFC was founded in 2010. At that time, there was no organization focused on addressing the needs of young, sustainable farmers in the United States. At the NYFC, we are improving access to capital and land, and helping young farmers address their student loan debt. Working together, we can help a new generation of young people start farms, steward land, and feed their communities.
FT: How are you contributing to building a better food system?
EH: At NYFC, I am focused on lowering the barriers to entry for young farmers. When we surveyed 1000 young farmers in 2011, we learned that access to capital, access to land, and student loan debt are the biggest challenges young farmers face.
To address access to capital, we are working with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directly to make farm loan programs work better for beginning, diversified farms. In 2013, we helped create the microloan program. This program uses a streamlined application process to offer small (less than $50,000) operating loans, which are ideal for small farmers looking for capital to get started. Thus far, the USDA has made over 8,000 of these loans, totaling more than $160 million. We also helped expand the Farm Storage and Facilities Loan Program. Traditionally used for grain silos, we helped expand this program to work for vegetable and fruit farmers’ cold storage and wash-and-pack stations.
When we focused our attention on land access, we found that traditional conservation easements are not protecting farmland for farmers. Instead, this prime farmland is often being sold to non-farmers and going out of agricultural production. To help young farmers access this land, we have been working with land trusts to promote the use of working farmland easements. These easements ensure that when a farmer sells his or her land, it is bought by another full-time farmer instead of a developer or another non-farm user. We have advocated for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which helps land trusts to fund these easements, and in the recently passed federal spending bill, we helped fight off $60 million in proposed cuts.
Finally, we just launched our “Farming is Public Service” campaign to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. As participants in this program, full-time farmers would see the balance of their federal student loan debt forgiven after making 10 years of income-based loan payments.
We have heard from our members that student loan debt is preventing them from building financially sustainable farms. New farms require a large capital investment in land, equipment, training and other expenses. Young people are not able to juggle these expenses along with student loan debt. The PSLF would provide a roadmap for young farmers in which they would pay off their student loan debt as income allowed, while knowing that there is a safety net to keep them from paying student loan bills indefinitely.
FT: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization’s goals?
EH: While we are trying to help young people enter agriculture, farmers as a whole are actually getting older. The 2012 Census of Agriculture found that the average age of a U.S. farmer is 58.3 and has been rising for decades. At the same time, the number of young people farming actually decreased by two percent between 2007 and 2012. For principal operators, those farmers who identified themselves as the primary manager on the farm, there was a slight increase in this age bracket—up about 1,000 young farmers from 2007 to 2012. Farmers under 35 currently comprise 7.8 percent of all farmers, and about 5.4 percent of all principal operators.
These statistics demonstrate just how poorly prepared the United States is to address the coming generational transition in agriculture. 63 percent of farmland will need to transition to a new farmer in the next 25 years as its current farmer retires or passes away. In total, 573 million acres of farmland will need to transition. Currently, only 30 million acres of land is farmed by a primary operator under the age of 35.
In addition, these statistics show that there simply are not enough farmers, and in particular young farmers, to create the changes needed in our agriculture policy. With so few farmers left, their voice is not loud enough on its own. It is critical that we engage consumers on not just the “big picture” but the nuances of farm policy as well. This has not been done before, and will be a significant task moving forward.
FT: Who is your food hero and why?
EH: Together, Liberty Hunter and Leslie Touzeau lead the Missouri Young Farmers Coalition (MOYFC), NYFC’s chapter in mid-Missouri. Missouri is a state commonly associated with commodity agriculture, but Liberty and Leslie have helped build a vibrant community of young, diversified farmers.
Farming can be a very isolating experience. This is one of the challenges our local chapters address head-on. MOYFC regularly hosts potlucks, mixers and crop mobs to bring young farmers together and share the work on their farms.
Liberty and Leslie are struggling to find affordable farmland in Missouri to start their own farm business. By forming the MOYFC, they are creating a collective voice for young farmers in the region and are tackling the challenges they face, together.
You can check out Liberty, Leslie, and MOYFC in a video NYFC produced last summer.
FT: In 140 characters or fewer, what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?
EH: Help farmers feed their communities and manage student loan debt. Demand loan forgiveness for farmers! #FarmingIsPublicService