A new report from the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) discusses the results of the 2017 National Young Farmer Survey. The number of American farmers is decreasing and their average age is increasing, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This survey examines the needs and challenges of young farmers to determine how to encourage a new generation of farmers.
“The time is now for our country to help young farmers defy the odds, preserve farming as a livelihood, and revitalize our nation’s rural economy,” says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Executive Director and Co-founder of NYFC. “This report proves that there are thousands of young people ready to build new farms in the United States, but we’ve got to do our part and make sure that they will succeed.”
The survey collected data from over three thousand former, current, and aspiring farmers under 40 years of age in the United States with the help of 94 partner organizations and in partnership with Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of Sustainability at George Washington University and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. The survey found generational differences in farming, including more diversity in demographics and crops.
“Things are changing in American agriculture and our perceptions and policies need to keep pace,” says Dr. Merrigan. “This survey reveals that it’s no longer Old MacDonald of storybook fame. Rather, it’s Ms. MacDonald, a college graduate who didn’t grow up on the farm and considers her farming practices to be sustainable or organic.”
Young farmers are operating smaller farms and are capitalizing on the demand for local food by selling directly to consumers. 75 percent of current young farmers describe their farms as ‘sustainable,’ while 63 percent are ‘organic.’ The average survey participant was more educated than the average American, with 14 percent completing a master’s degree. 60 percent were female and 75 percent were first-generation farmers.
The main concerns for young farmers are access to land, student loan debt, availability of skilled labor, and access to health insurance. Based on the survey results, the NYFC is supporting a series of policy reforms called the Young Farmer Agenda. The agenda addresses the concerns found in the survey as well as finding ways to engage young farmers to invest in on-farm conservation, improving credit and risk management opportunities, and addressing racial inequity among farmers.
“America desperately needs young people to repopulate our farm and ranch lands. This survey reveals the daunting challenges they face. As policymakers sit down to write our next farm bill, I hope they pay attention to these survey findings,” says Dr. Merrigan. “If nothing more is done to help transition young people into American agriculture, we will be importing all our food.”