Visits to grandparents’ farm spark love of agriculture, passion for advocacy
By Gary Brock
Lindsey Lusher Shute remembers fondly her time spent as a child on her grandparents’ farm near Gallipolis on the Ohio River.
It was a Gallia County farm of more than 150 acres passed down for generations.
“I have so many happy memories. It is where I grew my love for agriculture,” she told an audience of more than a thousand at the February Ohio Environmental Food and Farm Association annual conference in Granville, Ohio. She was the organization’s keynote speaker.
“This farm is what brought our family together,” she said.
But that farm isn’t the same today, and is now less than 10 acres.
Co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group with 30 chapters in 29 states, she told the audience that the most endangered group of workers in America today is the young farmer.
She said young farmers face huge obstacles of personal debt, high cost of farmland and lack of resources to grow their farms, but she hopes spreading the word through her organization can reverse the decline in young people going into farming.
“Our mission is to create a viable career path for young people in agriculture. This means people getting into farming as their first career. It is important for young people in their 20s and younger to know that there is a career path for them,” she said.
“If your call is to farm at an early age, you shouldn’t have to have another career in order to farm. That is not sustainable,” she said.
Shute said beginning farmers are the future of Ohio agriculture, but they face many hurdles.
She said farmers make up 1 to 2 percent of the American population, “but only one tenth of one percent of the American population is made up of farmers making a living on the farm earning, say, more than $50,000 income on the farm.”
“We are 319 million Americans looking at 36,000 young American farmers to steward the future of the food system of the United States,” Shute said. “Let me tell you, that’s a problem.”
She said the need for American farmers has never been greater.
“We, as farmers, steward about 1 billion acres of land — about half the land area of America — and about 63 percent of that land is farmed by farmers age 55 and older. So, you can say that at least that much land in the next 30 years is going to need to be transitioned to another farmer,” she said.
“What we will see in the future is more consolidation of farms, more development of farmland, fallow land and farm insecurity,” Shute warned.
Getting new farmers to join in this career is no small task. Some are hanging on, she said, but many are going into other careers, especially those who are getting into the age when they would like to have kids, or save for retirement.
“The average small-scale farmer is barely surviving. If we, as a farm community, want to succeed and bring new farmers into our fold, we have to find ways to deal with these issues,” she cautioned.
One of the biggest obstacles involves student loan debt.
Her group’s proposal is to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This is an existing program designed to help those wanting careers such as teaching and nursing by having their debt forgiven.
She said her group has a bipartisan-supported bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to add the “farming” category to the list of public service jobs.
“My philosophy of farming is that farming is a public service. That is why all of you are here today. You are here because you believe that what you are doing on your farm is contributing positively to the community, you are feeding people, you are helping the soil, protecting the air and clean water,” she said.
Another obstacle for young farmers, she said, is land access.
Farm prices have been rising since the 1980s, and the amount of farm land has been decreasing.
“Growing up here, I have seen this development. This has put a tremendous amount of pressure on farmers to sell their land. Expanding conservation land trusts — working farm easements — for farms, would help make them more affordable,” she said. The amount for that was cut in half in the last Farm Bill.
“We need to say that in the next Farm Bill, this land conservation funding is important to us. The land needs to be affordable to farmers. We will have quite a lot of work to do,” she said.
Shute said one of her favorite sayings is: We don’t need mass production; we need production by the masses.
“To me, that is exactly right,” she said. “The nation desperately needs more young farmers. New farmers to step into the shoes of our family farmers, we need family farmers who will love the land, bring fresh food to the market, build local food securities, and strengthen the local economy. It is up to all of us to pass on this desire for farming.”
Shute and her partner now operate an upstate New York organic vegetable farm. They provide food to a 900-member Community Supported Agriculture program.