Gen Z and Millennial farmers face funding challenges, isolation and major knowledge gaps – this group wants to change that

When the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) first formed in 2009, the group faced an uphill battle.

The organization, which operates as an independent nonprofit, represents a population that is both underserved and underrepresented in modern agriculture.

According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture report, the average US farmer is over 57, just five years from the average retirement age. Meanwhile, small family farms – those run by most new and first-generation farmers – account for just 24% of agricultural production. This proportion has declined since the early 1990s as the industry has evolved towards larger, older and more established family farms.

Hayley Wood, an urban farmer based in Austin, Texas, said the game was against her generation.

“I think young farmers are fundamentally designed to fail in this economy,” she told In The Know.

Wood, freshly 25, is part of NYFC’s Farmer Collection, which now numbers 10,000. The group’s goal is to empower Gen Z and Millennial producers by connecting them to grants, resources, and a community of people who can identify with their struggles.

Bringing “climate resilience” to agriculture

NYFC is deeply concerned about the types of people who grow our food and how they grow it. The organization’s stated goals include a strong focus on sustainability, as well as advocating for racial and social justice in agriculture, an area in which more than 95% of producers are white.

Kelsey Keener, who runs Sequatchie Cove Farm in Marion County, Tennessee, said many of these principles first attracted him to the Young Farmers Coalition.

As a child, he watched his family return to city life and move to southern Tennessee, where they began experimenting with sustainable farming tactics.

“At that time, you could pull out a map of the whole country and probably dot every sustainable organic-type farm in the whole country,” Keener, who is in his 30s, told In The Know. “And it wouldn’t be so many points.”

As Keener got older, he saw sustainable farming take off, thanks in large part to people his own age.

“We always strive to have the most sustainable practices possible,” Keener said of his own farm. “It is [a] really important thing for us, to take care of the planet and take care of this earth that we have.

Keener is now a member of the Southeast Tennessee chapter of the coalition, in which he said his status as a second-generation farmer made him a rarity. Most of his colleagues are the first farmers in their families, and many are learning things as they go.

“There’s this younger generation of people who want to do the right thing,” Keener said. “They want to be environmentally conscious, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it.”

Durability was also a big draw for Matt Sparacio. Sparacio, now also a member of Southeast Tennessee, spent years working as a teacher in New Jersey. But one day, he and his brother had a discussion that changed their lives.

“We had this conversation about healthy, clean foods,” he said. “And where you could get protein that wasn’t raised in feedlots and inhumanely.”

Sparacio and his brother, Micah, wondered why their love of meat and their passion for ethical and sustainable agriculture couldn’t coexist. So they decided to make it a reality. In 2015, the brothers moved to Tracey City, Tennessee, where they now run Cove Creek Farm.

At Cove Creek, the brothers prioritize environmentally friendly practices, such as constantly moving their livestock to maintain the ecology of their pasture. This decision alone can help reduce manure buildup, water erosion and soil runoff.

Farming for “climate resilience” is one of NYFC’s main guiding principles. Nationally, that means appealing to Congress or showcasing farmers who are experimenting with new eco-responsible methods.

Locally, Sparacio said the group’s climate agenda is more about sharing knowledge and showing each other what works.

“A lot of times people associate agricultural and environmental policies with not being able to coexist, when I think they should coexist,” he said.

A “scaffolding” for new farmers

At 40, Sparacio is a senior member of the NYCF. As such, it has a strong focus on mentoring the next generation.

“We kind of created the foundation for them with our local chapter, but we really want them to voice their concerns going forward,” Sparacio said. “Because I have 20 years left of this physical work in me. But the youngest are 40 years old, and it will impact them more.

The problem, of course, is that new farmers face an uphill battle in terms of education, organization and land ownership.

That’s not to mention the money. According to the most recent figures from the USDA, the average farm costs $182,130 in expenses per year – a steep bill for anyone, let alone someone in their 20s.

When speaking with farmers, the word “impossible” often comes up. The work is such a struggle, Sparacio said, that he and other members sometimes wonder if it’s ethical to bring more young people into the farming world.

“We often joke, ‘OK, do we really want to inspire other young people to become farmers?’ “, did he declare. “Because it’s a tough job.

Wood agrees, adding that the path is even tougher for first-gen newcomers like her.

“It’s a lot to have to do personal work,” she says. “There is no succession in terms of land, knowledge, wealth.”

Keener, in many ways, sees these issues as motivation. For him, this is one more reason why veterans must put the next generation in a position to succeed.

“His [about] this support network,” he said. “The purpose of the organization is to be there for all these promising farmers.”

Sparacio said the Southeast Tennessee chapter hopes to launch a more hands-on form of mentoring soon.

The group has plans for a sort of agricultural incubator, where newcomers can test their own ideas on another farmer’s land. Sparacio sees this as a “tiered internship,” with young farmers acquiring more and more responsibility over time.

“We want to be able to provide that access,” he added. “To be kind of a scaffold for people who are reluctant to take that leap into farming.”

An “isolating” job

The NYFC is, in many ways, a place for the exchange of ideas. But it’s also a community, a chance for farmers to interact, complain, joke and inform each other.

For some farmers, the social aspect is as crucial as any other benefit.

“Agriculture is so isolating,” Sparacio said. “I mean, you’re with animals most of the day, and it’s a lot of individual work. It’s nice to have this community to connect with. His farm is in a rural area between Chattanooga and Nashville, and he considers his chapter meetings a much-needed social outlet.

It is clear that other farmers in his area feel the same way. As Sparacio explains, he and Keener’s chapter have exploded in popularity since the pandemic began. After a much-anticipated decline in attendance at the start of 2020, group attendance has rebounded. Sparacio said their last meeting brought together nearly 50 participants from three different states.

Wood has only been farming since 2019, but she’s already seen how difficult isolation can be. Last year, she took charge of the Central Texas chapter of the NYFC. She sees her group, among other things, as a chance to ensure that farmers know that they “are not going through these experiences alone”.

Mental health is a critical issue among farmers, with CDC data suggesting the profession has some of the highest suicide rates in the nation, especially among men.

It is an ongoing problem with complex and intertwined causes. However, Wood notes that at least one problem is how agriculture forces people to live such atypical lives.

“Sometimes I think a lot of people are experiencing a severe disconnect from the economy outside of them,” Wood said. “Even the people they sell to, their lives are so different.”

Agriculture, adds Wood, has seen much of the burnout and work fatigue felt in nearly every industry over the past two years. And while the Young Farmers Coalition can’t offer direct mental health support, it can point its members in the right direction.

Wood’s chapter has made it a priority to ease the burden on young farmers. For example, it offers help with grant applications, which can be very confusing and time-consuming. Meanwhile, the Southeast Tennessee Chapter is working to create a unified sales network, so its members can sell some of their products in bulk.

Ultimately, Wood said, it’s about turning an “impossible” career into something manageable, satisfying and fulfilling.

“People want meaningful work,” she said. “They want tangible work and they want something that’s about connection.”

The post office The Young Farmers Coalition is redefining who grows our food and how they do it appeared first on Aware.

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