How We’re Helping Restore the ‘Missing Generation’ of Farmers

I have a picture I keep on my desk of my grandfather standing in front of his farm in eastern Indiana. My aunt stands beside him; all of 17, she has already left home to become a nun. But it’s late summer, harvest time, when all hands are needed so she has come back for a few days to help. My aunt holds up a giant, nearly bursting tomato and both father and daughter beam with a pride that jumps off the long-faded Polaroid. The expression on their faces is as expansive as it is timeless.

This food has come from my land and my hands.

I’m not much of a collector, my desk is otherwise spare, but this photo I have carried from one home to the next, from different countries and different states, always placing it at the center of whatever desk I occupy. I do this because no matter where I am, this photo reminds me of where I come from, my roots, both literal and figurative, on this earth.

But there’s another side to this photo, one less evident to the eye, and one I think about often these days. That farm, the one that stretched down to the Wabash River and nearly as far on either side, the one that carried my family from one hot Indiana summer to the next for five dozen years was sold in the 1980’s after my grandfather died. Their seven children, including my mother, had wanted other things, careers in Chicago, marriages that carried them back east, each of them choosing something other than farming.

Where did all the farmers go?

When I sat down with Lindsey Shute of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition last week, I learned that what had happened to my family is what happened to many others during the 80’s. Back then, farms dotted the landscape, particularly here in New England, where rolling hills, and rocky soils, so conducive to pasture land, meant a dairy farm could be found around almost every bend. But in the 80’s a recession hit, and crop and land prices suddenly fell, making it difficult for small operators to earn a living from the land. Farmers like my grandfather did what any parent would do – they encouraged their children to seek easier, more predictable lives – ones off the farm.

But here’s what happened next: as their children moved away there was no one to succeed them, and since millions of other young Americans were moving to cities for jobs, there were no other families to sell the land to. Land went into fewer and fewer hands, with larger holdings or was sold into development in the coveted ex-urban rings surrounding the cities.

Decades later a realization has been made that there is – what Lindsey calls – a missing generation of farmers, where food production has largely been ceded away from small families, and into large, agri-business operations. Land prices, particularly outside urban areas, have become exorbitant. When Lindsey and her husband tried to buy land in the Hudson Valley for their farm, for example, they couldn’t find anything under $1 million. But moreover, the daisy chain that led from one generation to the next of people who knew how to produce food locally from land that was their own has been broken.

Teaching the next generation

Today, the average age of dairy farmers in the northeast and across the country is approaching, or exceeding, 60 years old. Additionally, organic dairy farming takes skill, training and a greater amount of capital for both equipment and enough land needed to pasture and graze cows.

Stonyfield is helping turn this around, particularly since they are aware that the challenges are even greater for young and beginning organic dairy farmers. In 2016 Stonyfield helped found the Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine.

Through this first-in-the-nation program, apprentice farmers learn all aspects of organic dairy farming, from how to manage herds and milking operations, to business planning and equipment operation and repair. Organic dairy provides farmers with a higher, and more stable price for what they grow, helping them earn a better living. The program consists of 4,000 hours of training over a period of two years and apprentices live and work on the farm during the program. By the time they graduate, each trainee will have received the knowledge, skills, experiences and resources needed to begin their own enterprise.

Early next year, the first apprentice at Wolfe’s Neck Training Program will graduate and hopefully go on to continue the tradition of organic dairy farming in the Northeast.

The Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program doesn’t solve all the issues – according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, land prices and college loan debt are barriers that must be continually worked on if the missing generation of farmers is to be restored. (Eventually, Lindsey and her family were able to purchase their farm in 2012 with the help of land trust and today, she and her family operate Hearty Roots Community Farm). But it certainly solves part of the problem by helping foster and mentor the next generation of farmers.

We can all be a part of strengthening and reviving the country’s farming sector. Here are 3 simple ways to make a difference this National Dairy Month and beyond:

  • Support the National Young Farmers Coalition. This organization is taking the lead on supporting and reviving sustainable farms throughout the country. You can donate as an individual or spread the word of their hard work.
  • Farming provides a public service. Voice your opinion and tell your representatives to support including farmers in the national loan forgiveness program by backing the Young Farmer Success Act here. Since 2007, this public service program has provided incentives for Americans to enter medicine, education, and other public service careers. This is a successful program that young farmers should be included in as well. Farmers, like nurses, teachers, government employees and non-profit workers, should qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program!
  • Shop locally, buy organic and know your farmer. Shopping at farmers markets has many benefits – like having access to seasonal and nutrient dense food to improve your diet, reducing your carbon footprint by reducing the number of miles your food travels and more. One of the biggest benefits is supporting your local community and local young farmers. Find your nearest farmers market here and support your local economy and family farmers in your area!