Ralph Gardner Jr: Farming's Younger Generation

Aug 25, 2018

How do you reach farmers these days, at least young farmers? Podcasts, of course. “So many young farmers listen to podcasts while they’re farming,” Lindsey Lusher Shute told me. “They don’t have time to read. We knew it would be popular.”

Lindsey is the co-founder and executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, based in Hudson, NY. As well as the host of the Young Farmers podcast – nine episodes and counting!

The organization’s mission sounds simple: to represent and mobilize young farmers.

But the underlying challenges, not of putting together a podcast, that’s the easy part, but of surviving and hopefully flourishing as a young farmer in the United States today are daunting. The biggest obstacles, of which there are many, include finding affordable farmland and student loan debt.

“Never before have farmers come to farming with fifty to a hundred thousand in debt,” Lindsey explained. “It’s a very risky and low margin enterprise.”

We’ve all heard that old joke about how you have a net worth of one million dollars as a farmer. Start with two million.

But today’s young farmers also bring to the job something earlier generations of farmers often didn’t have. Good educations. In fact, a National Young Farmers Coalition survey done last year of thousands of young farmers – both first generation and multi-generational -- found that they’re more likely than average American to have higher education degrees.

But I was curious how much that matters in farming. Farmers once grew up on farms and learned about farming almost by osmosis, from their parents and grandparents. (By the way, while most farmers in America are older men, that same survey found that the future of farming may well be female. 60% of respondents to the Young Farmers Coalition survey were women.)

However, I was still somewhat skeptical of the skills of the nation’s newest crop of farmers. Just because you’ve studied philosophy or art history doesn’t mean you can grow asparagus. The learning curve for millennials who have never farmed before must be perilously steep.

Lindsey didn’t disagree. “You have to be bright and a good businessperson,” she told me. “You can’t just be an idealist. There’s a physical learning curve to being outside all day. It’s a major shift from a desk job.”

She speaks from personal experience. She and her husband Ben – both liberal arts majors – run 70-acre Hearty Roots Community Farm in Clermont, NY.  The farm grows organic vegetables that its sells through its CSA, and has a crew of other young farmers that they hope will take the knowledge and techniques they acquire at Hearty Roots and eventually start farms of their own.

Lindsey grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, OH, Ben in the middle of Manhattan and like other young farmers had trouble finding affordable farmland in the Hudson Valley.

“Land is the #1 challenge, the reason people can’t get into farming and the reason they quit,” she said.

They started by renting land. But when that farm was sold they couldn’t find any farms to buy for under a million dollars. “There’s no connection any more between the price of land and an income for a farmer,” Lindsey said over cappuccino at Moto Coffee, a Hudson café across the street from the coalition’s office.

They eventually managed to purchase land from a woman who bought it out from under a developer. They also worked with Scenic Hudson, the environmental organization that has programs that allowed them to acquire their land at its favorable conservation value.

Lindsey, who attended NYU and started the National Young Farmers Coalition in 2010, got her first taste of farming at a community garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She also graduated from Bard College’s Environmental Policy Program.

But her insights as an organizer gelled when she went to work for Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit whose mission is to reclaim New York City’s streets from automobiles and for bicyclists and pedestrians. She saw the skill with which the group mobilized an army of engaged citizens to achieve its policy goals.

“And here young farmers were not having the platform for organizing,” Lindsey told me.

She decided to do something about it, especially after the enthusiastic reception the idea received at a young farmers conference at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Eight years later the National Young Farmers Coalition has approximately two thousand members and forty chapters in 29 states. Their legislative successes have included the Working Farm Protection Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Didi Barrett and signed into law by Governor Cuomo a few weeks ago. The law’s goal is to help keep protected farmland affordable and in the hands of farmers.

They’ve also been lobbying lawmakers in Washington ahead of voting on the next Farm Bill. Their pitch: affordable farmland must be a national priority. And the massive student loan debt standing in the way of new farmers has to be addressed.

For all the obstacles that stand in the way of young farmers, Lindsey is optimistic about their future and also about the knowledge and perspective they can bring to agriculture at a moment when nothing less than the planet’s fate hangs in the balance.

While many Millennials might be starting from scratch when it comes farming techniques, having a grounding in broader science, climate change and, yes, even art and poetry may well translate into growing hearty, healthy crops. With one caveat.

“Young people are the future of agriculture,” Lindsey said. “But you’ve got to provide them the opportunity.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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