‘Guerrilla farming’ takes off
EARLYSVILLE, Va. — The Rhode Island Reds run free, which means the hens have a habit of laying their eggs anywhere they please: under the porch, near the hog pen, next to that tree over there. So Chris and Annie Newman have no choice but to play a kind of farmer hide-and-go-seek, squatting and squinting, reaching and grabbing for those hidden brown orbs. That beats their poultry processing duties, though, which are messy and bloody and decidedly not for the faint of heart.
A little more than a year ago, Chris, 32, and Annie, 28, threw $27,000 of their life savings and Kickstarter proceeds into “guerrilla farming,” a beyond-organic approach that relies on imitating nature to create self-sustaining agriculture that looks out for the environment, animal welfare and public health.
Newbies like the Newmans face a number of challenges. For first-generation farmers who didn’t grow up on the family farm, access to affordable land is a big deal. The days of being able to purchase some cheap land in the country are gone.
Young farmers often find themselves competing with deep-pocketed land developers for scarce resources. Access to capital and financing pose other problems. Getting a loan isn’t easy, particularly for young college grads saddled with heavy student loans.
Recognizing those obstacles, some states have created programs to provide the next generation of farmers with the skills and land needed to be economically competitive. Missouri, Maryland and Virginia, for example, are among the states that help prospective farmers access available land, while Massachusetts, Minnesota and Delaware provide financial assistance to independent farmers who are just starting out, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The future of young farmers has broad implications for states, from ensuring the safety and security of the local food supply to strengthening rural communities to mitigating climate change and drought, according to Holly Rippon-Butler, land access campaign manager for the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC).
“If we don’t help the young generation of farmers get on the land, retiring farmers will quickly run out of people to sell the land to, individuals who will continue to grow food on it and treat it as farmland,” said Rippon-Butler. “We will lose the ability to produce our own food and to ensure that our food supply is controlled and safe.”
According to Rippon-Butler, there are two big needs to keep farming viable for the next generation. “You need farmers who are willing to work every day on the farm,” she said. “And you need farmers who are willing to go out and advocate for the structural changes we need to make that work possible.”
For years, the small family farm has been slowly dying out, as large corporations, such as Monsanto and Perdue, increasingly dominate the industry. Every week, about 330 farmers leave their farms for good, according to Farm Aid; less than 1 percent of Americans today claim farming as an occupation. The fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers is 65 and older, according to census statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the second-fastest growing group is young farmers and ranchers who are under 35. There are only about 110,000 nationwide, but they are the only age group under 55 whose numbers are increasing. Most of them are first-generation, new to the industry and trying to earn a living on independent farms. According to a National Young Farmers’ Coalition report, the vast majority of young farmers — 78 percent — did not grow up on a farm.
For most first-generation farmers, securing land is a daunting obstacle. According to the NYFC survey, 70 percent of farmers under 30 rent farmland, compared with 37 percent of farmers over 30. Farmers who were raised on a farm were much more likely to own land — 65 percent — compared with 50 percent of farmers who did not grow up farming. According to Rippon-Butler, more than two-thirds of American farmland is currently being farmed by individuals who are 55 and older, who will be nearing retirement over the next couple of decades.
“In the next 20, 25 years, there’s a lot of land transfer that’s going to be happening,” Rippon-Butler said. “There’s lots of potential for people who own land to think creatively and create opportunities for young farmers.”
But real estate changes hands quickly and most young farmers don’t have the wherewithal to quickly secure financing, she said. Between 2000 and 2010, national land prices doubled; an average-sized farm can cost upwards of $1 million.
As Chris Newman sees it, he and his wife “hit the lottery” when it came to securing land. A member of the Choptico-Kanawha band of Piscataway Indians, Chris was eager to farm as his ancestors once did, eschewing loans, pesticides, fertilizers, expensive equipment and bureaucracy. His in-laws happened to have a house on 26 acres of land here just outside Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia is located — land that was zoned agricultural. Annie’s parents were going to sell their property, which was mostly covered by trees, but agreed to let the young couple “squat” on the land for a year or so.
Eventually, the Newmans hope to find another property and move once they’ve established themselves in the business.
“It’s not easy when you’re trying to learn a new career on the fly,” said Chris, who quit his job as a software engineer to launch Sylvanaqua Farms. Annie used to be an art gallery director. “Farming’s not simple. You’ve got to be smart to do it. But people are really attached to us being here. When the pigs escape or you’re killing a chicken and you get poop in your mustache, you say, ‘Well, people really appreciate what we’re doing.’ “
Agriculture, Virginia’s biggest industry, has an economic impact of $52 billion annually and provides nearly 311,000 jobs, according to the state agriculture department. But a lot of the farm land is owned by people who never were farmers or who have given up farming for good, according to Ron Saacke, the young farmers’ coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau. So in 2012, the state agriculture department partnered with the Farm Bureau to link existing landowners with young and beginning farmers looking for land through a farmland database. Virginia Tech University, with a small grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also helped.
Progress has been slow, Saacke said. More than 80 young and beginning farmers have gone through the application process, but only 15 have been certified to participate. Only a handful of matches have been made. “Until you have a whole lot of examples of successes, it’s hard to get people on board. That’s our challenge,” Saacke said.
Matching farmers to farmland can be as tricky as finding a suitable mate to marry. Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak, young farmers who live up the road from the Newmans, thought they’d found the ideal situation: a landowner willing to lease their land to them so that they could explore sustainable farming. They were already farming on Joel’s parents’ 13-acre land, but they were looking to expand.
“It sounded awesome, to live in a house on the owner’s property and transition it to a sustainable farm. At the end of the day, she wanted (the farm) to look like a (well-manicured) golf course,” Erica said. Instead, the couple ended up “nickeling and diming” on other people’s land, using a tiny parcel here for one crop and another parcel at another farm for a different crop. They lease a total of about 100 acres.
In Nebraska and Iowa, landowners are offered tax incentives to sell or lease land to young farmers. Other states are experimenting with conservation easement programs, which designate certain amounts of land as farm; developers can’t buy the land, and, for example, turn it into condos. Anyone buying the land has to use it strictly for agriculture.
Often, getting access to land happens when farmers become part of the community, Rippon-Butler said. “Many real estate deals don’t make it to the market. They’re happening at dinner, or at church. You’ve got to be someone that people trust business-wise and socially. That’s the reality of farming in many places.”
When she first started out farming in 2007, Zoe Bradbury thought she had enough money budgeted and planned for various expenses, from greenhouses to irrigation systems. She was fortunate because she was able to farm on her mother’s land along the southern Oregon coast. But the money evaporated pretty quickly, so she tried to get a small loan through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency — only to be turned down.
“I was shocked,” Bradbury said. “I thought I would be the poster child for that sort of program, young, female, just starting out. But they seemed completely uninterested in offering any kind of advice.”
Because she was leasing her mother’s land, rather than owning it outright, she wasn’t eligible for the FSA loan, Bradbury, now 35, said. Even if she did own the land, the FSA wouldn’t loan the money unless she’d already been turned down by three traditional banks. The local banks she turned to were offering her between 14 and 18 percent interest.
“It was untenable,” Bradbury said. “I was running out of time in the midst of a real cash flow crisis.” She needed only $15,000 to pay for an irrigation system, but it felt insurmountable. Nor could her family afford to loan her the money. So she paid for everything with a 12-month, zero interest credit card, gambling that she’d make enough to pay it off before the 18.9 percent interest rate kicked in. She paid it off two days before the grace period ended.
“It was a pretty ulcer-filled year of financial wrangling. It’s come around, but man, those first couple of years have been fraught, that’s for sure,” Bradbury said.
Since Bradbury got her start, state officials in Oregon launched the “Aggie Bond” program, a federal-state, private-public partnership which assists beginning and expanding farmers with land acquisition, agricultural improvements and property, including livestock, seed and equipment. It gives Oregon banks a federal tax credit when they loan to new farmers, and the banks, in turn, give low-interest loans to budding farmers.
Fifteen years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture started a business training program for young farmers, one of the first of its kind in the nation. The program covers technical assistance, business planning, access to capital and farmland preservation, according to Craig Richov, director of farm viability programs for the state.
The program targets young farmers at three different stages of their career, whether they are exploring a career in agriculture, formulating a business plan or trying to expand their farm. Five years ago, the program was expanded to include matching enterprise grants of up to $10,000 for young farmers, Richov said.
The majority of young farmers in the state are startups that are taking advantage of the local food movement, Richov said. “They’re more philosophical about farming, where their food comes from, wanting to share that information with their customers, families and children. And they’re successful. You see them at the farmers market; you see their growth.”
When the program started in 1999, there were only a couple of Community Supported Agriculture programs, where consumers subscribe to seasonal deliveries of produce from the farmers, according to Richov. Today, there are more than 430 CSAs around the state, he said.
In order to help the next generation of farmers, states should revise their laws to encourage apprenticeship programs, provide new farmer grants, offer student loan forgiveness and provide tax incentives to protect farmland, according to the NYFC. This year, New York state launched a program offering grants and student loan forgiveness for young farmers, according to Rippon-Butler.
“At some point, those young farmers will become established farmers,” she said. “This keeps the farm industry moving forward.”
The Newmans hope to be a part of moving farming forward. Already, they partner with other farmers in the area, helping them with slaughtering livestock and selling their produce in Washington, D.C., markets. They’d like to move from farm to farm, establishing a sustainable farm on a parcel of land, teaching a young apprentice the works, and then deeding the farming operations to them when they move on to another property.
The traditional route of getting a loan to finance a heavily mortgaged farm is a “death spiral,” Chris Newman said. “The traditional path to the farm is too heavyweight. It’s scary. It doesn’t allow for experimentation.
“We want to fix the way agriculture is done and prove you can feed everyone this way,” he said. “Something that would make it attractive for someone who would otherwise sit at a desk.”