Planting seeds for younger farmers

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Articles - March 2011
Wednesday, March 02, 2011

 

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Farmers under the age of 35 make up only 4.2% of Oregon farmers. A 15-year project hopes to educate and train the next generation.

A new food initiative by Multnomah County hopes to bring young farmers into an industry that is starved for youth.

“Currently, farmers under the age of 35 make up [only] 4.2% of state farmers,” says Michele Knaus of the nonprofit Friends of Family Farmers.

The 15-year project aims to improve local food systems. The plan, which has more than 65 initiatives, includes the creation of a new farming incubator to educate and train new farmers.

“Multnomah County is a fantastic convener [of ideas]; we have the credibility and the energy that helps bring all the important parties to the table,” says commissioner Judy Shiprack. “The whole idea of having an incubator that would raise up a new generation of farmers came from that table.”

The program will bring together individuals interested in farming with retiring farmers looking to pass on their skills as well as looking to lease or sell their land. An apprenticeship system will teach new farmers not only the agricultural skills but also the business skills crucial to making a farm successful.

According to Knaus, up until the creation of this plan, people interested in farming were being derailed because of difficulties in finding access to land, capital or small-business loans.

“I think that it’s positive that people might be interested in this kind of work. Here is this program that shows them how to do it,” says Shiprack.

The consumer demand for locally sourced food was another inspiration for the plan.

“If food isn’t a part of our local community, we lose a lot,” says Knaus.

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Comments   

 
Ryan McLaughlin
0 #1 Great idea, but a bit idealistic.Ryan McLaughlin 2011-03-24 12:26:16
I have seen programs like this in other states, and frankly, while well-intentione d, the plan is overly idealistic. There are ample opportunities in the US for young folks to gain experience farming. As a 25 year old, I have many friends and colleagues who have spent time as farm interns or volunteering on farms. Education in farming and even farm management is abundant, and not at all a barrier to entry.

The barrier to entry is capital. It is well known that the average age of US farmers is increasing, having recently shot past 55. Unfortunately, until 2008, the price of land was doing the same thing. However, even post-crash, land is still unattainable for most aspiring young farmers.

Think about it, to step away from a career to learn to farm requires considerable savings or financial support from family. Once you've been educated, you still need to get land. Leasing is not an economically viable option long term, and buying is cost prohibitive to most young people. In fact, the people my age that I know who are farming have gotten into it from trust funds, family support, or from having family with large parcels of unused agricultural land that was easily converted back into production.

Bottom line, young people need capital more than they need education in farming. Unless these programs incorporate some mechanism to provide them with accessible capital, the program will never yield large scale returns. What we see instead is a trickle of youth into farming and a mass exodus of farmers into retirement, leaving their land to conglomerates or development.
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