In February 2020, the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers) distributed a survey to farmers and ranchers across the country to learn more about the challenges they are facing on their farms and in their communities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The following is a summary of our survey results. The Coalition will be publishing a longer report on our findings in the coming weeks. For additional resources to help manage the impacts of COVID-19, please visit our online resource library and FAQ page.
In the first days of this national emergency we published our COVID-19 response and feared our young farmers were facing one of the most difficult seasons of their lives. We saw hope in the resilience afforded by farmer-led solutions and community action, and anticipated the hard work ahead in rebuilding an already fragile food system. We know crisis underscores vulnerability, and we braced ourselves for this pandemic to expose once again a food system that is continually unprepared to provide food security, that heaps risk on the next generation of farmers and ranchers, compromises the health of our nation’s farm workers, and undervalues all the lives that labor for our nourishment. We are again relying on the essential public service of our nation’s farming communities to endure this crisis.
Over the last month, the National Young Farmers Coalition escalated its work to respond to this new iteration of farm crisis. We hosted listening and strategy sessions, established a phone bank initiative to connect farmers to farmers, and distributed a national survey to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on individual farmers and our community. There is no denying that this crisis is lived differently by different people and that its impacts are asymmetrical. Our survey results reveal that most farmers are focused on pivoting their sales strategies and also preoccupied with pressing concerns like safety, caretaking and accessing healthcare that limit their ability to manage their farms.
Our survey provides a brief glimpse into early impacts of COVID-19 on our nation’s young and beginning farmers. This crisis is ongoing and the ultimate human and economic toll it will take on our communities remains uncertain. There is no doubt that this crisis highlights both the essential service our farming communities provide, and the escalating risk these communities face. The survey responses feature inspiring stories of how young farmers are rallying, innovating, and building resilience. We are also witness to the economic devastation that is disrupting this farming season and jeopardizing the long-term prospects for the farmers who are working hard to build a better food system.
We will lose another generation of farmers without concerted community support and directed policy intervention.
Agricultural crisis, as experienced during this pandemic, is a confluence of production challenges, economic devastation, and policy failures. We surveyed young farmers on the variety of adverse impacts they are enduring as a result of COVID-19 and here are their top challenges:
- The top reported impact is reduced outlets to sell their products because of restaurant sales declining and farmers market closures, with 75% of respondents indicating this is a challenge for them.
- Additional challenges include the added costs of implementing alternative sales strategies (53%), disruption to completing planned projects (45%), lack of available support resources for their business (such as veterinarian and mechanics) (45%), and unanticipated caretaking responsibilities (42%).
- Other impacts farmers are experiencing include reduced income from off-farm work (43%) and inability to retain employees (26%).
- 70% of our young farmers are preoccupied with one or more “non-farm” impacts such as losing off-farm income, serving as caretakers, and dealing with personal health impacts of COVID-19.
- Only 13% of farmers are seeing negative impacts to their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sales – in fact, many young farmers are specifically transitioning their sales into CSA programs.
Our conversations with farmers provide vivid testimony to the scale of need in our farming community–the need for both stronger local infrastructure as well as structural change in our food system, and the need for individual connections and collective support. We asked farmers what kind of support they need most:
- The primary kind of support farmers are looking for right now is help developing new sales channels for their products (51%), closely followed by direct financial assistance (45%).
- They also need help getting the word out about their farm to new audiences (43%), food safety response planning assistance (33%), and help getting customers to purchase CSA shares for the upcoming season (31%).
- Over a quarter of respondents are looking for assistance getting customers to purchase food right now (28%) and help connecting to others in their communities (27%), followed by software or technological support (23%), accounting and business planning help (22%), and assistance finding off-farm income to replace lost wages (20%).
- Other needs include access to mental health care (20%) and social media assistance for communicating with customers (19%). About 17% of respondents marked access to healthcare as a need.
There has never been a more important moment to support local food systems. Consumer commitment at the start of the season through CSA programs, and dedicated purchasing through farmers markets and direct to consumer channels eases economic uncertainty. Young farmers rely upon communities investing in their land access and government policy investing in their success. Uncertainty about the duration and severity of the pandemic compels us to both provide immediate relief and commit to long-term solutions.
We need to quickly reinforce our local food infrastructure and also re-orient our agricultural policy to preserve the long-term security of our food system. Our young farmers are eager to forge connections with new local consumers during this pandemic: they request maps where they can list their farm to connect with customers (58%) and marketing software for their farm products (35%). They want support in the form of web-based community meetings to discuss challenges and solutions (45%) and a list of financial assistance and unemployment resources to help navigate available government programs (48%). And our young farmers want policy advocacy that fights for their priorities (55%).
If we are to survive this pandemic and emerge with a better food system we also need hard-earned hope.
We have hope because our young farmers have hope. Young farmers are in the fields and doing the work, despite an agricultural system that undervalues their commitment, the new risks from COVID-19, and the additional challenges climate change may bring this season. Our hope is not baseless idealism, it is inspired by this generation of farmer leaders who are devoting their lives to giving us the food system we all deserve. This is a movement of young people who have gone hard this spring, pivoting their business plans while working overtime in their fields, creating mutual aid networks and supporting their local food banks, serving as community leaders and collaborators. This is work powered almost entirely by their devotion to community-based food systems and work that’s been too long ignored, under-resourced, and undervalued by our nation’s economic and political system. This spring may demand the hardest work of any young farmer’s career, but it is only April and they will keep going.
But our nation’s young farmers need more than our hope. They need our purchases, our support, and our advocacy. They need our commitment to rebuild for the long-term. They need our advocacy to fight for policy that does not aim to fix failing systems but resources resilience and the proven solutions of community-based agriculture.
Photograph by Tianna Kennedy of Star Route Farm in New York State.