At the eighth annual Young Farmers Conference, hosted by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, 250 farmers from across the country gathered earlier this month to share their skills, triumphs and travails.
Brian Massey covered the conference for Civil Eats:
I spoke with many farmers, workshop presenters, and industry leaders, and what I found was a local food movement in transition, justifiably celebrating all that it has accomplished, but unsure of exactly where it’s going next or how it will get there. Amidst the revelry, there was also discontent, worry, and a palpable sense of restlessness. The opportunities for young farmers are plentiful right now, but so are the pitfalls.
A common theme among the farmers Massey interviewed is the need for more training programs:
In response to the burgeoning demand from young folks interested in sustainable agriculture, new farmer training and apprenticeship programs are sprouting up all over the country. But compared to the opportunities available for those interested in other career tracks, there are still too few of these programs, and the programs tend to be concentrated only in certain regions.
Take Georgia, where Ashley Rodgers works for Serenbe Farms, one of a growing number of suburban “agrihoods” centered around small farms. Rodgers said there are few farms in the state that have apprenticeship programs, and yet, “there’s no interim step between intern and farm manager.”
More broadly, there’s a need to create business models and distribution systems that will support a new generation of farmers:
The larger challenge is that once leaving these programs, many young farmers are finding that core business models centered around direct sales to consumers—through farmers’ market and the community supported agriculture (CSAs) subscription programs—are difficult to sustain. In one recent study of full-time CSA farmers in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, 81 percent said they were not earning a living wage.
Advocates also say it’s time for sustainable agriculture proponents to embrace diversity and confront systems of racial and economic inequality:
Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff, the founders of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, view their work training farmers as a cultural healing project for youth of color who might strongly associate farming and oppression. Doing that work “looks like being together and being loving with each other,” said Vitale-Wolff. “But also being fierce and challenging each other. Truly changing our food system doesn’t always look pretty.”
Read more from the Young Farmers Conference here.