Sunday, January 17, 2010

Growing Young Farmers: Supporting the Next Generation

Every year, thousands of small family farms in America bite the dust and farmland is eaten up by suburban sprawl. The future of farming looks grim when you take a peek at the majority of the statistics out there. Despite all of this, I’m really excited, and I think you should be too because contrary to what many statistics seem to foreshadow, there are a lot of aspiring young farmers ready to dig in and revive small-scale sustainable agriculture. Likewise, there are an increasing number of support systems in place for fledgling farmers who need guidance and experience. In order to grow more successful young farmers, we must establish more networks of assistance and collaboration between farmers.

One of the best ways to acquire practical farming skills is to pursue a farm apprenticeship. Many existing farms offer seasonal internships or apprenticeships for those interested in sustainable agriculture. Ideally, the apprentice is involved in all aspects of running a farm and small business. Apprenticeships can be found through contacting individual farms. However there are some organizations dedicated to informal agricultural education that will work to place you with a farm that is aligned with your specific interests and needs. An alternative way to gain experience and travel at the same time is to join WWOOF, an international network of organic farms that are looking for willing workers.

Once you’ve gleaned some experience and are ready to branch out on your own you’ll need to find land. Depending on your financial status, this may not be an easy task. If you can’t afford your own land, some large landowners will allow farmers to rent acres of their land to cultivate as do many land trusts. There are also a few incubator programs scattered across the country, like the Intervale in Burlington, Vermont. The Intervale Center is a non-profit that manages 350 acres of land at the edge of the city and leases acreage and facilities to small start-up farmers. Incubator programs also offer business model and technical assistance to new farmers to increase revenues and efficiency. Along those same lines, such programs also work to help connect farmers with new and local markets. Some agricultural education organizations set young farmers up with older mentors for a year or two, to offer advice and wisdom.

Starting any small business is tough, and a farm is certainly no exception. In order to capture the energy that many young people are bringing to sustainable agriculture today, more support systems are needed to ensure the viability of new farms and reverse the disappearance of small farms in America.

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