Sunday, January 3, 2010

Supporting Young Farmers: Sustaining Food Farming

Do you hear the quiet sigh of older farmers across the nations? Farming has been undervalued as a career option until quite recently. However, with the push towards local food, city kids are discovering food farming and rural kids are realizing that there may be something in this farming thing after all. Younger farmers are slowly, very slowly beginning to repopulate rural areas and create small farms that feed local and national communities. Along with the renewal of farming as a viable career option comes the emergence of programs to support these young farmers.

The Serve Your Country food map is one such effort. It’s an attempt to begin to map the young farmers across the United States. It has red dots for “journeyman” or apprentice farmers who have not yet settled down to farm on a particular piece of land. The map is just beginning but it looks promising. It’s a project of The Greenhorns, a documentary about young farmers.

In Canada, the Outstanding Young Farmers Program supports and recognizes young farmers like Greg and Tania MacKenzie, whose chance visit to a local produce farm resulted in a job, then a purchase of the farm. The couple’s 60 acre farm now produces broccoli, cabbage, and squash for the local market and Chinese food restaurants.

While young farmers may choose to invest in larger ventures, many of them are turning to smaller scale production as well, finding it more affordable. Community supported agriculture is a way for young and older farmers to cover their expenses before the season begins, guaranteeing shareholders a portion of the crop. Community members pay for their shares in advance and the farmer can use the money for annual farm start up costs.

Small market gardens on urban, suburban and rural land are also growing in popularity. Healing herbs, seeds, greens for upscale restaurants: whatever the crop, a young farmer is likely growing it for sale. Innovative farming models that make use of a network of privately-owned or vacant lands are a way for new, young and urban-dwelling farmers to make a living.

Whether young farmers decide to stay in their home communities, move from urban to rural areas, or become an urban farmer, they are changing the face of agriculture. Many young farmers are coming from a new and different place than previous generations of agriculturalists – they are coming from the environmental movement or from small urban plots. Inspired by the outdoors and the physical and community-building work of creating a farm, they are being transformed by the act of farming and transforming that act as they grow.

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