How land trusts can partner with young farmers

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NYFC’s land access campaign manager, Holly Rippon-Butler, recently collaborated on an article for Saving Land magazine, which is published by the Land Trust Alliance. The article, Partnering with Next Generation Farmers, highlights the crucial role land trusts have in ensuring farmers have access stop affordable farmland, and it outlines some of the tools land trusts can use to make a positive impact on the future of our food system.

An excerpt:

[Lindsey Lusher] Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition (link is external) (NYFC), outlines the dire facts: “In the next two decades, more than two-thirds of the farmland in the United States will change hands. As farmers retire and pass on, their land is likely to transition out of family ownership and management forever. In rural areas, family farms are being purchased by speculators or consolidated into mega-farms. In urban-influenced areas, active farms are being taken out of production as they’re sold for development or rural estates. In both cases, the price of farmland is far greater than what the next generation of farmers can possibly afford.” […]

For years, strategic preservation of farmland by land trusts has laid a foundation for long-term production of locally grown foods, particularly in urbanizing regions where an estimated 80% of Americans now live [The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency]. However, the challenges facing farmers today urgently require this work to be scaled up and strengthened to keep farmland owned by farmers and in agricultural production.

To read the full article, including the list of innovative tools that land trusts are making use of to preserve farmland, follow this link.

Photo: Ashley Loer of Sparrowbush Farm

New NYFC report finds student loan debt is exacerbating farmer shortage

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Today NYFC released a new report, Farming Is Public Service: A Case for Adding Farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which shows that student loan debt is one of the key barriers preventing more would-be farmers and ranchers from entering agriculture.

Read the full report here. 

FIPS_report_coverThe report contains data from a new survey of more than 700 young farmers as well as data compiled from the USDA Census of Agriculture. Highlights include:

  • Only 6% of all U.S. farmers are under the age of 35. Between 2007 and 2012 America gained only 1,220 principal farm operators under 35. During the same period, the total number of principal farm operators dropped by more than 95,000.
  • Survey respondents carried an average of $35,000 in student loans.
  • 30% of survey respondents said their student loans are delaying or preventing them from farming.
  • 28% of survey respondents say student loan pressure has prevented them from growing their business, and 20% of respondents report being unable to obtain credit because of their student loans.

“Farming is a capital-intensive career with slim margins,” said NYFC executive director and cofounder, Lindsey Lusher Shute. “Faced with student loan debt, many young people decide they can’t afford to farm. In other cases, the bank decides for them by denying them the credit they need for land, equipment, and operations.”

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With thousands of American farmers nearing retirement (the average age of farmers is now 58), the U.S. needs at least 100,000 new farmers over the next two decades. This issue reaches beyond the farm and impacts rural economies because farmers are often the primary revenue generators and employers in rural areas.

According to Davon Goodwin, a 25-year-old farmer and veteran from North Carolina (pictured above), encouraging more young people to become career farmers is essential. “Farming is serving your community at the highest level,” said Goodwin. “Making sure families have access to healthy, local food is as important as being a police officer or a teacher.”

On June 1, legislation was introduced in Congress that would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), placing the profession of farming alongside careers such as nursing, teaching, and law enforcement that already qualify for the program. Through PSLF, professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments while serving in a qualifying public service career have the balance of their loans forgiven.

The bipartisan Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 2590) was introduced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Rep. Courtney (D-CT). Co-sponsors include Rep. Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Emmer (R-MN) and Rep. Lofgren (D-CA). The legislation has broad support from nearly 100 farming organizations, including National Farmers Union, FFA, and Farm Aid.

Interested in supporting the Young Farmer Success Act? Visit our Farming Is Public Service page to learn more and take action. 

Young Farmer Success Act introduced in Congress

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University of Maryland agriculture instructor Meredith Epstein loves teaching, but it isn’t the career she imagined for herself. Epstein doesn’t lack the skills, training, or talent for her chosen profession—farming—she simply can’t afford to invest in a farm of her own because she has student loan debt. The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would remove this barrier to business investment for Epstein and thousands of other young farmers like her.

The Young Farmer Success Act (House Bill 2590) was introduced on June 1, 2015 by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT). The bill seeks to address a major crisis facing American agriculture: Not enough young people are becoming farmers. As the majority of existing farmers near retirement (the average age of the American farmer is 58), we will need at least 100,000 new farmers to take their place. But between 2007 and 2012, the number of young farmers increased by only 1,220.

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The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would incentivize farming as a career by adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an existing program that currently includes professions such as government service, teaching, and nursing. Under the program, public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments would have the balance of their loans forgiven.

careersAs Representative Gibson explains, farmers provide a service every bit as valuable as other professions currently covered by the program.

“Our farmers not only generate vital economic activity in every state, they produce our food and fiber and protect the rural landscape as true public servants,” Gibson said. “This common-sense legislation makes it far easier for our college graduates to return to the family farm or begin production on land of their own, safeguarding a way of life that sustains our nation.”

Farming is an expensive business to enter, in part because of skyrocketing land prices, and beginning farmers often face small profits or even losses in their first years of business. In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) conducted a survey of 1,000 young farmers and found that 78% of respondents struggled with a lack of capital. A 2014 NYFC survey of 700 young farmers with student loan debt found that the average burden of student loans was $35,000 and that 53% of respondents are currently farming but have a hard time making their student loan payments, while another 30% are interested in farming but haven’t pursued it as a career because their salary as a farmer wouldn’t be enough to cover their student loan payments.

“To reinvigorate our agricultural workforce, we must invest in a new generation of farmers,” Representative Courtney said. “Skyrocketing higher education costs and a growing student loan debt burden are thwarting young farmers from purchasing farming operations. This needed legislation would assist new farmers during the costly, initial phases of starting up farms and would increase the stock of new farmers to meet our nation’s growing agriculture needs.”

Story1_optAccording to NYFC executive director and cofounder, Lindsey Lusher Shute, who is herself a young farmer, House Bill 2590 has broad support from nearly 100 farming organizations, including National Farmers Union, FFA, and Farm Aid.

“We are extremely proud of the coalition that has come together in support of this bill, and grateful for champions like Representative Gibson and Representative Courtney,” Lusher Shute said. “If we want to support rural economies and feed our nation, not just for the next five years but for the next five generations and beyond, we must make recruiting young farmers a top priority.”

House Bill 2590 will be considered as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is the legislation that houses the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

In the meantime, farmers like Epstein will continue to pursue off-farm jobs while paying down their student loan debt, hoping for a day when they can start a farm of their own.

“I teach beginning farmers at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Applied Agriculture, preparing students to go out and achieve the dream that I can’t,” she said. “I hope that their student debt doesn’t put them in the same position I’m in.”  

Send your Representative an email today,

and tell him/her to support House Bill 2590. 

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I know what you are thinking – you don’t have time for this button. But why take that chance when there’s so much at stake? Even one email can make a big difference. 

New report: Innovation & stewardship in the arid West

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Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard in the news: Family farmers are leading water conservation efforts in the West. Here are two examples.

  • By building up the level of organic matter in the soil of their California farm, Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser (pictured above with their crew) have drastically cut their irrigation use while increasing their production seven fold compared to similar California farms.
  • In Wyoming, ranchers Pat and Sharon O’Toole have always managed their land with conservation in mind. Along the way, they’ve built strong partnerships with Trout Unlimited, Audubon Wyoming, and The Nature Conservancy—organizations some ranchers once viewed as adversaries.

NYFC_WesternCaseStudiesFINAL_Lower_Page_01Our new report, Innovations in Agricultural Stewardship: Stories of Conservation & Drought Resilience in the Arid West, offers five case studies profiling producers across the Colorado River Basin (an area that spans seven Western states) and beyond who—with curiosity, creativity, and seasons of trial and error—are adapting and even thriving in the drought. This report was created in partnership with the Family Farm Alliance to highlight farmers who are building drought resilience, saving water, & growing good food for all of us.

Read our new report here. 

The West is mobilizing in search of answers to a growing water gap between water supply and demand. Earlier this week the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages much of the water infrastructure in the West, released a report that NYFC also collaborated on titled Moving Forward Phase I Report that identifies ways to reduce water stress in the Colorado River Basin.

Now with our latest publication, Innovations in Agricultural Stewardship, we hope to add to the list of solutions. In order to develop smart policy, it is critical to understand the creative ways farmers and ranchers—young and seasoned alike—manage their land. We call on our policymakers to engage farmers as allies in finding innovative solutions that support the health of our land, water, and Western communities.

The West, water and you: Take our new survey

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This year drought has gripped the West to a new extreme. But both young and seasoned farmers are forging new and innovative solutions, growing more food with less water while enhancing biodiversity, soil health, and their local communities.

Yet despite this, too often young farmers are not engaged in shaping water policy. This means their values and their voices go unheard by policymakers.

NYFC is changing that. As part of our ongoing work on water in the West, we are developing a grassroots advocacy platform on western water. We just launched an online survey to hear what matters most to you on western water issues.

Are you a farmer or rancher? Complete our survey, and as a thank you, we will give you a year of free membership in NYFC. Existing members will have their membership renewed.

 

TAKE THE SURVEY:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/TPP8H9Q 

 

We have been hosting community gatherings on water across the West, but since we can’t make it everywhere we’d like, we’re hoping to get a broad response via the survey. We want to know: Is conservation important to you? How has drought impacted your operation? Can policy and funding be enhanced to support you in your success?

We know your time is packed with actual farming this time of year, so thank you for taking five minutes to lend your voice to this effort. For taking the survey, you will receive a FREE year-long membership with NYFC.

Membership is optional, but membership is also awesome. You decide.

Want to meet with your representative on an issue you care about? Email our western organizer, Kate Greenberg, and we’ll help you have your voice heard.

To learn more about issues farmers are facing in the arid West, watch our short film “RESILIENT.”

Zoning and Other Boring But Important Stuff

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Guest post by Ann Larkin Hansen

When we bought our farm in the early ’90s, we were too ignorant about rural living to worry whether a large cattle feedlot, a stock car racetrack, or other incompatible neighbors might move in next door. We’re lucky: Our neighbors are still wetlands and lake cabins, and things will probably stay that way.

A lot of farmers aren’t so lucky. In my years of working as a farm reporter and serving on our township’s planning commission, I’ve seen a lot of problems connected with land-use issues, from atrazine contamination of wells due to heavy pesticide use, to odor issues caused by large swine and poultry operations, to noise and light issues from frac sand mining and trucking. And there are a lot more operations looking for places to build in the country: “adult” entertainment, prisons, landfills, industrial plants, and housing developments filled with folks who object when you spread manure or have to run machinery late in the evening to complete a harvest.

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Ann Hansen

Fortunately, land-use regulations allow a county or township to protect itself, for the most part, from land uses that injure or offend the current residents. Unfortunately, many townships and counties haven’t put good regulations in place and are caught by surprise when this makes them a target for CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) or other new neighbors who might not be a good fit for the neighborhood.

So, if you’re looking at land to buy, I highly recommend that you:

  • Check out what land-use regulations are in place at both the county and township level, and also ask about what sort of changes might happen in the future. A lot of county and town websites now have their ordinances online; if not, call or stop by their office and ask to see them.
  • Ask if there’s a Comprehensive Planning document for the area; this will tell you what’s expected to happen in the next twenty years or so in terms of road building and upgrades, power line corridors, residential development, and industrial development.
  • Also look for other clues about your potential neighbors. Ask how many high-capacity wells have been drilled in recent years—these are used for large-scale agriculture. An increase in requests for driveway and building permits indicates a rise in residential development.

The land-use ordinances will also tell you what you will and won’t be allowed to do on the property you’re thinking of buying. If you’re planning on-farm sales or an agri-tourism enterprise, make sure that these activities are allowed. (I knew a couple who gradually built an on-farm greenhouse and nursery operation into a thriving business only to be told that they had exceeded what was allowed in their township. They had to shut down.)

It’s important to understand that there are three types of land-use regulation that are employed to regulate what and how landowners can use their land.

(1) Licensing and Nuisance Ordinances
The first type are called Licensing and Nuisance ordinances, and these are still quite often the only type found in rural townships. Licensing and nuisance ordinances do NOT regulate what can be done on land; they can only set rules, within reason, for how an activity is done, such as hours of operation.

And, as with all ordinances, the rules don’t apply if the establishment—say a gambling casino—was built before the ordinance was passed.

 

(2) Land Division Ordinances
The second type of land-use regulation are Land Division ordinances. These regulate how land can be divided for future development and may govern such items as whether a parcel must have road access, a good building site, and appropriate soils and space for a septic system. In our township, for example, we’ve written ordinances that require a minimum lot size of 2.5 acres and road access that meets state standards regarding distance from intersections and other driveways.

As with licensing and nuisance ordinances, land division ordinances do NOT regulate what can be done on a piece of property, they only establish minimum requirements for development.

 

(3) Zoning
Only the third type of ordinance, Zoning, regulates what can be done on property. It’s kind of a double-edged sword: Zoning ordinances, for the most part, protect you from injurious or obnoxious neighbors; they also limit what you are allowed to do on your own land. For this reason, “zoning” has become a dirty word in many rural areas since the thought of not being able to do whatever you want in your own private kingdom seems to trump the thought of someday having a casino next door. Too often, it seems, rural townships refuse to even consider zoning until something awful to live next door to comes to the area, and then it’s too late. In the last ten years, mining for frac sand has exploded in our area, causing a big scramble by area townships to get any regulation they can in place. Many of these efforts haven’t been successful.

Zoning works by establishing districts for different land uses, so incompatible uses, like a huge dairy operation, aren’t built next to residential subdivisions. In rural areas, zoning may include districts for farming, residential, recreational, industrial, and commercial use.

It’s important to look over the definitions of the districts since these vary considerably. Some zoning ordinances are quite detailed and regulate right down to what is allowed for things like fence height, while others are pretty minimalist.

 

There’s one further twist to land-use regulation. In some instances, such as wetland protection, state or federal regulations have been put in place, which override any local ordinances. In this case, counties and towns can’t override state and federal regulations, so it’s a good idea to ask at the county level what type of state and federal land-use regulations might affect the land you wish to acquire.

 

Ann Larkin Hansen is a farmer and author whose books include “The Organic Farming Manual,” “Finding Good Farmland,” “A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods” (with certified master logger Mike Severson and consulting forester Dennis Waterman), “Making Hay,” and “Electric Fencing,” all from Storey Publishing.

 

 

Tell New York Governor Cuomo To Act Now on Land Access for Young Farmers

A photo of the Beacon State Correctional Facility from the Empire State Development's Request for Proposals, 2014.

A photo of the Beacon State Correctional Facility from the Empire State Development’s Request for Proposals, 2014. The Beacon facility is one of many decommissioned prisons across the State with farmland, greenhouses, and other infrastructure resources on site. Bill A07002 would help ensure beginning farmers have access to this land and resources.

In August, we wrote a blog post about New York State legislation that would help beginning farmers across the state get access to viable agricultural land. The bill is now on the Governor’s desk – we are asking him to take action and sign it into law.

If passed, this bill could provide access to state-owned farmland for new and beginning farmers; spur the creation of further state policies and programs to support beginning farmers; and reduce the likelihood of state-owned farmland being developed.

 

The Challenge

In New York, the average cost of farm real estate, which takes into account land and buildings, has been steadily rising. It is now $2,700 an acre – up 3.8% from last year and 12.5% from 2010 [1]. For beginning farmers who must compete with developers for this land, these prices mean that buying a farm of their own is often out of reach. Few farms are available for under $300,000, and many more are listed for sale at well over $1 million [2].

New York State’s farm and food sector is worth $47 billion. As the average age of the state’s farmers continues to rise, however, this strong economic engine is at risk of disappearing. We must do more to help our next generation of agricultural businesses succeed. Governor Cuomo has an opportunity to help ensure the future of our farm and food economy in the State by signing this legislation into law.

 

What This Bill Would Do

The key features of this legislation are:

  • Inventorying of state lands. The bill would require state agencies to inventory and publicize their landholdings and assess the suitability of the land for farming.
  • Farmland conservation. Viable agricultural lands would be considered for conservation through the state farmland protection program and made available to famers for lease or purchase.
  • Beginning farmer land access. The bill requires the state to enhance beginning farmers’ access to this land and to support the successful transfer of viable farmland from retiring owners to the next generation of farmers.
  • Beginning farmer assistance. The bill requires the Agricultural Advisory Council to provide guidance to the Department of Agriculture on taxes, financial assistance, and other policies and programs that could address the needs of beginning farmers

By inventorying state landholdings that are viable for agriculture and making them available to beginning farmers, the State could put thousands of acres of land currently sitting vacant on decommissioned prison farms, mental health facilities, and state parks to work for our state’s agricultural economy. This legislation is an opportunity for the Governor to demonstrate his commitment to two of the state’s most valuable agricultural resources – its land and the farmers who work it.

 

What You Can Do

Call Governor Cuomo’s office today! He needs to hear from you. Governor Cuomo was elected to serve the citizens of New York, and now is the time to make your voice heard.

1. Call the Governor’s office1-518-474-8390 PRESS 3 to speak with an assistant or PRESS 2 to leave a message

2. Tell him,“I am a ____________ (young farmer/advocate/New York State resident) who is ____________ (experiencing/concerned about) the challenge that our beginning farmers face getting started in New York State. Through Governor Cuomo’s policies and actions, he has demonstrated an awareness that agriculture is a strong economic engine in the State of New York, and we appreciate that. As our current population of farmers ages, however, we need to do more to support the next generation of farmers getting started or we risk losing this incredible state resource. The Governor has an opportunity to help beginning farmers access land and successfully start their farm businesses by signing Bill A07002 into law. This bill, which is currently on his desk, would make state lands available to young farmers and help direct resources towards ensuring those farmers’ success. I urge him to sign the bill into law today.”

Feel free to use this template as a starting point, or tell a personal story about why access to farmland is an important issue to you.

3. Talk to your friends! Tell other farmers and farm supporters you know to call the Governor’s office and make their voices heard as well.

THANK YOU! Together, we are ensuring the voice of the next generation of farmers is a powerful part of the public conversation.

Gov. Cuomo speaking on a farm in Middleburgh, NY in 2011. Photo: Office of Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo speaking on a farm in Middleburgh, NY in 2011. Photo: Office of Gov. Cuomo

[1] www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Todays_Reports/reports/land0814.pdf

[2] www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/opinion/keep-farmland-for-farmers.html?_r=0

Water Tour brings farmers together from across Southwest

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Farmers of Southwest CO Young Farmers Chapter gather for a potluck and photo shoot for NYFC film “Resilient”

Below average precipitation combined with warm and dry summers make it difficult for producers to grow enough to make a profit and forecasts of low precipitation patterns suggests this may be a new normal.  With water being a critical resource for managing a successful farm, drought resiliency is an important skill. This week the National Young Farmers Coalition, in partnerships with the Family Farm Alliance, brought together a diverse group of more than 50 farming and ranching professionals  to discuss the question: “What are farmers and ranchers doing to be more resilient in times of drought?”

(more…)

New Reports Outline Steps Needed to Build an Inclusive Food System

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One of the new reports from the Center for Social Inclusion

In U.S. agriculture, there is a long history of discrimination against minority populations and women. For many years, these groups were purposefully excluded from Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs in their own communities. A series of class action lawsuits, most notably Pigford v. Glickman, brought these practices to an end. (more…)

Last Call for Submissions to the New Farmer’s Almanac

almanacOur friends at the Greenhorns seek your agrarian essays, flowcharts, manifestos, cartoons, illustrations, policy briefs and sonnets for their 2015 New Farmer’s Almanac.

In case this last call is the first you’ve heard, here’s a bit of background:
The New Farmer’s Almanac is a radical continuation of a thousands-year old almanac tradition. Self-published by the Greenhorns, it is an anthology of contemporary writing and illustrations from farmers and food-eaters from around the world, presented alongside historical content from back through the centuries. It is a broad forum for conversation about the constellation of issues surrounding farming, food and community, and an effort to open our collective ears to voices from the past as we stride into the future. This year’s theme is agrarian technology. Engage!
 
They’ve rolled the 2014 almanac into 2015 to synch up their publishing schedule with the farming calendar, so if you’ve already submitted no further action is required.
Submit by February 15th to be considered for the 2015 edition.
 
They’re trying to keep text submissions under 900 words. Scanned images should have a minimum resolution of 600 dpi.
 
List of chapters/themes is copied below. Send questions and submissions to almanac@thegreenhorns.net  
 

SOIL: What do we know about healing from roundup?

SERVITUDE: Political economies across time

OPPORTUNITY: The Commons; Entrepreneurship.

QUALITY OF LIFE: Duty. Joy.

URBANIZATION: Geo-constraints; Digital culture’s expectations; Ag-literacy; Rooftops, Brownfields.

LOGIC & CONTEXT:  Thinking in terms of the system.

STARTUP & STEADYSTATE: Cooperative dynamics.

TECHNOLOGY: Criticism & Evaluation; Increasing mechanical literacy among female farmers.

DEMOCRACY: Microcosms & Macrocosms.

SPIRIT & DOMINATION: Sir Francis Bacon, where’s the eggs?

INDIGENOUS: Pre-agricultural and agro-ecological kinds of knowing.  Are there any young shaman voices?

SHIFTING: Deliberate strategies for straddling and transitioning the systems we live inside of.