Beginning Farmers: Essential for a Good Food Future

farmer and child
Photo © Patty O'Brien


Since Farm Aid started in 1985, America has lost an average of 350 small and midsized farms each week.[1] The dramatic erosion of farms from the countryside has hastened under an increasingly industrial and corporate-dominated food system and policies that promote short-term gains for a few over the long-term wellbeing of rural communities, local economies, public health and our natural resources.

With half of today's family farmers poised to retire in the next decade, we have reached a critical crossroads. If the next generation of family farmers is to thrive and provide good food for all, we will need to challenge the corporate-controlled, industrial system that dominates our food supply and displaces family farms. The good news is that beginning farmers are critical agents of change—propelling the Good Food Movement forward by engaging in alternative farm enterprises and participating in local and regional markets.

What is a beginning farmer?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a beginning farmer or rancher as someone who has operated a farm for 10 years or less. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, 29 percent of all farms in the country are operated by beginning farmers. About 6 percent of established farms have a beginning farmer running the farm alongside an established farmer.

Beginning farmers by the numbers

  • Half of today's 3 million farmers are set to retire in the next 10 years.
  • On average, beginning farmers are younger than established farmers—one-third of beginning farmers are 55 or older, compared to almost two-thirds of established farmers.
  • In 2007, there were only 118,613 farmers under the age of 35, just 17 percent of all beginning farmers in the country.
  • Beginning farmers tend to run smaller farms than established farmers—174 acres compared to 461 acres for established farmers.
  • Available land can play a huge role in where beginning farmers end up. In some counties only 10 percent of farms are beginning farms, while beginning farms represent well over 50% of farms in other counties.
  • Beginning farmers represent 20% of poultry production, 17% of dairy production, 16% of cattle production, 15% of cash grain production and 10% of nursery and vegetable production in the country. [2]

Beginning farmers face a number of obstacles as they build their farm business — steep start-up costs, land access barriers, skill development, financial planning and even determining what to grow and how to sell it. A survey by Farm Aid partner, the National Young Farmers Coalition, found that:

  • 78% of farmers ranked “lack of capital” as a top challenge for beginners, with another 40% ranking “access to credit” as the biggest challenge; 68% of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginner farmers.
  • 70% of farmers under 30 years of age rented land, as compared to 37% of farmers over 30.
  • 74% of farmers ranked apprenticeships as among the most valuable programs for beginners.
  • 55% of farmers ranked local partnerships as one of the most valuable programs, and 49% ranked Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as a top program.

These challenges may be having an effect, as this chart from the National Young Farmers Coalition shows. The percentage of farmers over 65 and between 25-35 have taken radically different turns since the 1940s:

Farmer Age Graph

Farm Aid Resources for Beginning Farmers

Whether you're just thinking about becoming a farmer or have been farming for a few years, Farm Aid's Beginning Farmers Guide through our Farmer Resource Network offers the very best resources for beginning and aspiring farmers and ranchers.

You can also contact our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline and farmhelp@farmaid.org email service for help finding the support you need to get started in your career on the land.

Learn more with Ask Farm Aid:

Get to know our latest “beginning” crop of Farmer Heroes!

  • Andrew Prittz of Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa, is a sixth-generation family farmer on the first aronia berry farm in the country. Andrew's proven that family farming can remain a sustainable career in rural Iowa.
  • Chris & Donna Garza started a new life on the farm after being diagnosed with medical conditions. They're using innovative methods to sustainably raise pigs and chickens, andthey sell their food directly to members of their community.
  • Faced with the challenge of land access in a suburban environment outside of Boston, Kate Canney started The Neighborhood Farm, four acres of gardens spread among seven different spaces dedicated to growing produce sold at local farmers markets.
  • Ryan Wood Beauchamp and Kara Fitzgerald run Evening Song Farm in Cuttingsville, Vermont, a unique, heirloom vegetable CSA that was left in ruins in 2011, after Hurricane Irene made its way across the East Coast. Today, and with the help of their community, they're rebuilding to be stronger than ever.
  • Jenn Halpin established the Dickinson College Farm in 2007, an organic farm that feeds its student body and engages students in agriculture in the heart of Pennsylvania.
  • Zoë Bradbury ran into a long list of challenges that beginning farmers often encounter, but persevered and turned her Oregon farm into the thriving, community-oriented destination that it is today.
  • Gary Purgason turned his family's dormant tobacco farm into Buck Pigg Plantation, a 97-acre free-range chicken and produce farm in Madison, North Carolina.
  • After watching her parents sell their farm following the 80's farm crisis, Courtney Cowgill swore she'd never farm. But today, Courtney and her husband Jacob Cowgill are committed to building a successful life in rural America and run Prairie Heritage Farm, a diversified turkey, vegetable and ancient grains farm in Montana.

Sources

1. Data from USDA's Economic Research Service shows that between 1982 and 2007, the US lost over 40 percent of small and mid-sized farms - or 460,000 farms. This averages to 353 small or mid-sized farms per week. A small farm, according to USDA farm classification, has annual gross sales below $100,000 and a mid-sized farm has annual gross sales between $100,000 and $250,000.

2. Data pulled from the 2007 Census of Agriculture and ARMS Survey

Read about more issues facing family farmers and good food.

Your thoughtful comments are encouraged. Farm Aid does not censor or refuse comments for content unless they are spam or a personal attack. All comments containing links will need to be manually approved to ensure they are not spam.

blog comments powered by Disqus