Young Farmers Find Huge Obstacles to Getting Started


Published: November 12, 2011

Emily Oakley, who had worked on an organic farm in California, moved with her husband, Mike Appel, to Oaks, Okla., in pursuit of cheap farmland. But even though they had $25,000 saved, the couple could not get a bank loan. When they applied for a government loan, the loan officer threw back his head and laughed.

“He’d never met anybody coming in for a loan for an organic vegetable production,” Ms. Oakley said. “He thought, ‘These are young, naïve, romantic, idealistic kids who didn’t know what they’re getting themselves into.’ ”

Similar stories prompted the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, a new group that has grown out of the Hudson Valley in New York, to survey more than 1,000 young farmers nationwide in an effort to identify the pitfalls that are keeping a new generation of Americans from going into agriculture.

“Everyone wants young farmers to succeed — we all know that,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, who oversaw the survey. “But no one was addressing this big elephant in the room, which was capital and land access.”

Ms. Shute’s husband, Benjamin, runs Hearty Roots Community Farm in the Hudson Valley, which delivers seasonal produce to 500 families. Ms. Shute said she hoped that the survey results, released on Wednesday, would demonstrate to the United States Department of Agriculture and to Congress that young farmers, although passionate, have needs that must be addressed.

The obstacles are formidable. At Quincy Farm in upstate New York, Luke Deikis and Cara Fraver say they are living their dream, harvesting cabbage, sweet potatoes and carrots on a 49-acre property on the Hudson River. Still, even after three years of farming, Ms. Fraver, 30, waits tables, and Mr. Deikis, 31, moonlights as an engineer in the film industry, occasionally driving three and a half hours to Manhattan to pay the bills.

Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, appears to have championed their cause. The 2008 Farm Bill included a program for beginning farmers and ranchers, and over the past year, the Agriculture Department has allotted $18 million to universities and extension programs to educate beginning farmers.

Speaking at the annual national convention of the F.F.A., or Future Farmers of America, in Indianapolis last month, Mr. Vilsack said: “The future of agriculture is bright and will present the next generation with incredible opportunities to pursue. Young people should continue to engage in policy that affects them, but they shouldn’t be limited by it.”

Mr. Vilsack has often noted that the average age of the American farmer is 57, and that that age is rising. He has said he hopes a younger generation will emerge, not only to replace retiring farmers, but also to reinvigorate rural areas. Last spring, his deputy, Kathleen A. Merrigan, toured colleges and cities to encourage young people to farm.

Six miles outside of Knoxville, Iowa, Ethan Book, 31, chose to raise livestock, as his family did 60 years ago. A former youth pastor, Mr. Book became a farmer because he had high cholesterol and had read that pasture-raised meat was healthier to eat. “In my mind,” he said, “our animals are doing what they were created to do, eating the way they were created to eat.”

Although Mr. Book does not regret his decision to farm, he discourages others from entering the business. “It’s going to tear you down financially, even if you make no mistakes,” he says.

Data from the Agriculture Department support his warning — only 22 percent of beginning farmers turn a profit their first year. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition found that 73 percent of young farmers must work away from the farm; Mr. Book, a father of four, works 40 hours a week at a farm store.

When he looks out the back window of his small farmhouse, he sees a 3,000-acre corporate farm and machinery worth four or five times as much as his operation. “People are demanding cheap food, they’re demanding a lot of it — corn for fuel, soy for diesel,” Mr. Book said. “It does have an impact on us in the sense that we’ve seen land prices skyrocket in Iowa. It does make it difficult for a beginner to get into the game.”

From 2000 to 2010, the price of farmland doubled nationwide, to $2,140 per acre from $1,090. For Mr. Deikis and Ms. Fraver, buying property required creativity and research. In 2007, they were tending their garden on Quincy Street in Brooklyn when they decided to become farmers. First they met with landowners through a land link program that pairs agricultural landowners with farmers to pass along land, but the land that appealed to them was too expensive.

While they continued their search, they apprenticed on established farms, which they realized later was crucial for their success. Seventy-four percent of respondents to the National Young Farmers’ Coalition said that apprenticeships — unsanctioned in many states — are the most important programs for beginning farmers.

When Mr. Deikis and Ms. Fraver found a scenic spot for sale on the Hudson, across the river from where the Battles of Saratoga were fought, they conjured a plan with two conservation groups to create an agricultural easement on the property, which lowered its value. The couple closed on the farm in April.

“We are in a wonderful spot in rural America, even if there aren’t hip bars with good beer on tap,” Mr. Deikis said.

Ms. Oakley said young farmers rarely discussed that lack of community, adding that she had seen the isolation break up marriages. At their Three Springs Farm, she and her husband, both 34, grossed $60,000 by their third season — a reason to celebrate by most standards — but they wished they had more company.

“It was just the two of us, every job we did together,” Ms. Oakley said. “It’s intense. We would gladly trade a little competition for more community and collaboration.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 13, 2011, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Young Farmers Find Huge Obstacles To Getting Started.