Young people want to farm but have no land [Opinion] | Agricultural education and youth organizations

I’m a first-generation farmer in Armagh, Pennsylvania, and a Land Advocacy Fellow with the National Young Farmers Coalition. I am also an aspiring farmer and have been running John-Paul’s Farm with my husband for the past two years where we mainly produce vegetables and eggs and are learning to produce small grains, hay and chicken.

Armagh is located in southern Indiana County, near Cambria County. This region is linked by shared heritage, pastimes, agriculture and coal mining.

Agricultural pride is prevalent in our communities, where there are a total of 1,508 producers and 227,629 acres under cultivation as recorded in the 2017 USDA County Profiles. From multi-hundred-acre dairy farms, to market farmers and backyard gardeners preserving their crops, to farmers’ market-goers, 4-H participants, and numerous agricultural fairs and festivals, there is significant engagement in agriculture in Indiana and Cambria counties.

My agricultural knowledge did not come from my parents or even my grandparents, but I came into contact with agriculture in other ways. During high school, I milked cows and processed maple syrup. Every summer I got a glimpse of haymaking and cattle breeding. During college, I spent a season as a farmhand on a community-supported organic family farm that served more than 1,000 members. I now live on my wife’s family farm, which has barely been worked for the past four decades.

Becoming a farmer in a farming community has always been intimidating for me. “Are people going to think I’m joking?” I thought. So far, the answer has been, “No, absolutely not.”

My efforts have been met with enthusiasm and support, particularly from older farmers. Enthusiasm is matched by admiration for my hard work, having expanded our farming operations over two fiscal years to become the largest organic producer at our local farmers’ market, reviving idle farmland in the process. I often hear “it’s great to see young people doing this work” followed by “young people don’t want to do this anymore”.

Interacting with farming elders has been a pleasure – they have provided me with encouragement and expertise. Our shared love of farming brought us together, but I find a disconnect when it comes to being young and farming.

Young farmers need land

The notion that “young people don’t want to farm” is not the truth of our time. I am part of the next generation of young farmers, but we need the help of older generations and elected officials to succeed. We face many challenges – affordable, safe access to land is number one for many of us.

Access to land – including access to farming and continued stability while farming – is a major concern for young farmers, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers who cannot inherit family land. According to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey, 59% of young farmers and 65% of BIPOC farmers said finding affordable land to buy was very or extremely difficult.

I’m not a farmer because I’m a particularly hard-working woman, as compliments imply, or because I have a greater desire to be than any other person in their early 30s who is interested in farming. Due to my family closeness to the country, I can be a farmer.

I became a Land Advocacy Fellow with Young Farmers to argue the need for equitable land policies in the 2023 Farm Bill from my privileged place as a white farmer in a majority-white community with stable land access.

The biggest hurdles I had to overcome was a dying parent and a farm owner with no will, no transition plan and no debt. While this is an issue that many other adult children of parents face if left unaddressed, it is not the most important issue when it comes to moving countries. My experience of changing country was a fortunate one given my personal history with farming ownership, personal entry fees and the ability to blend into the local culture when needed. I have generally felt safe and welcome as a young white woman in this region, despite some surprises when I claim that I am a farmer and work outside all day. The barriers in this white, rural area were automatically lower for me, while they are higher for people of other identities—e.g., queer, black, indigenous—due in large part to a history of forced migration and land tenure restrictions.

I want farmers who are nearing retirement to know that there are many young people who want to farm like me but don’t have the resources and access to land that I had.

Please don’t confuse my privilege with a work ethic. Instead, acknowledge that we are at a pivotal moment in farming where we have the opportunity to bring farming to a younger, more diverse generation.

Farmers are aging across Pennsylvania and across the country. In Indiana and Cambria counties combined, more than 60% of farmers are age 55 and older, while more than 30% are age 65 and older, according to the 2017 USDA Farm Census.

In my conversations with farmers looking towards retirement, I’ve heard uncertainty and unease – “I don’t know what’s going to happen to my farm.”

We as a community are at risk of losing farmland to development or even larger farms that are not as invested in the people of Indiana or Cambria counties as we are. We are in danger of losing our family businesses.

Families have been losing land in our region for centuries. Indigenous peoples have been forced to flee these lands, mountaineers have been displaced to allow industry to extract resources from the earth, and families now face difficult economic circumstances that make selling their land to the highest bidder more attractive than selling it on to farm. When retirement comes and it’s time to sell the family farm, the highest bidder is rarely a young farmer. Young people do not have access to capital like developers or energy producers.

Saving the family farm doesn’t have to mean keeping the farm in the family. Maybe members of your family have moved away or found other career paths, and that’s okay. Saving the family farm can mean ensuring another family can continue to farm the land, or turning your farm into a land trust that invests in farming conservation.

steps forward

There are many options but we need to ensure that there is supportive policy in the Farm Bill 2023 to ensure that the land access programmes, including transition planning, are available and that young farmers have access to the capital they need.

I am reaching out to established farmers to leverage their connections with the Farm Service Agency, the farming community and local and federal policymakers to support the next generation. Let’s advocate policies that help young farmers compete for land in the real estate market and help retired farmers create a transition plan for their farms that will benefit both current landowners and future farmers.

The National Young Farmers Coalition’s One Million Acres for The Future campaign calls for:

• A US$2.5 billion investment in land access and transition programs in the 2023 Farm Bill.

• Affordable sources of federal funding designed to meet the needs of farmers and help them compete in a highly competitive real estate market often driven by nonfarm buyers and investors.

• Support and incentives for farm conversion through investment in mediation and technical assistance to support farmers at the point of conversion.

• Preventing land loss in communities of color, particularly at the time of farm transition. In particular, we must continue to invest in the Heirs-Return program.

• Investing in data collection, reporting and research on land tenure, ownership and transition.

• Invest in a dedicated multi-year funding source for technical service providers who support farmers seeking access to land and landowners moving off farm ownership – prioritize funding for government matchmaking programs focused on reaching out to underserved farmers and landowners concentrate heirs.

I don’t have to be the youngest farmer at my local farmer’s market, and we shouldn’t continue to wonder at the fate of our local farmland when there are people eager to take up the profession. Let us work across generations to secure the agricultural future of our region.

Jane Kaminski is a farmer and co-owner/operator of John-Paul’s Farm in East Wheatfield Township, Indiana County, Pennsylvania.