Young Iowa farmers learning lay of the land
Many now turning to agriculture have never lived on a farm
IOWA CITY — One day while walking to work as an engineering consultant in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, Kate Edwards wished for a moment she was walking to a barn instead.
While Edwards, 31, didn’t grow up on farm, she always had a desire to get into agriculture, thanks to visiting her grandparents’ farm in Monticello as a child.
Flash forward from that Minnesota moment in the fall of 2009. Today, Edwards runs Wild Woods Farm, a community-supported agriculture vegetable farm 2 miles north of Iowa City.
While thinking about getting into the industry, she called her grandmother to talk about it.
“She said to me, ‘We farmed so our children and grandchildren didn’t have to,’” Edwards said, recalling that her grandparents suffered through the farm crisis of the 1980s. “It definitely left scars on the landscape and scars in the community. ... When I was about 8 years old, I was like, ‘I want to do something to change the way that farming affects farm families.’”
Edwards, like many young farmers just starting, did not grow up on farms. A 2017 report from the National Young Farmers Coalition found that 75 percent of young farmers — those under age 40 — who responded to the survey had not grown up on a farm.
“One of the things that my grandpa said is that ‘I farmed because I didn’t know how to do anything else.’ It was the thing you were born into,” Edwards said. “For my parents’ generation, there was very much an exodus from the farm.”
Edwards said her generation had a more idealistic view of farming because much of the crisis was over in their early years and the land was more of a “beautiful place to visit” than it was associated with chores like her parents faced.
She must not have been alone. For the first time in 100 years, the 2012 Census of Agriculture, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported an increase in the number of farmers under age 35.
“We didn’t grow up on farms. We’ve chosen to farm. We know kind of the barriers to farming and how hard this life is and we’ve chosen to do it anyway,” said Alyssa Dunn, a 28-year-old with Crow’s Creek Farm near Anamosa and president of the Eastern Iowa Young Farmers Coalition.
WHO THEY ARE
Almost two-thirds of U.S. farmland is managed by people 55 or older, according to the coalition’s report. However, over the next five years, almost 100 million acres of that farmland are expected to change ownership and need a new farmer to take over, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
This situation is priming the country for more new, young farmers to take over. These farmers under 35 are mostly women, highly educated and likely be sustainable or organic farmers, according to the report.
These young farmers caught the eye of New York filmmaker Graham Meriwether, who recently directed the documentary “Farmers for America.” Earlier this month, Meriwether traveled the state to show his film, including a screening at Old Brick in Iowa City.
“We just want to tell young people that there’s an incredible opportunity and if they’re interested, then go for it. That’s awesome,” Meriwether said.
HOW THEY WORK
The vast majority, 75 percent, of young farmers who responded to the coalition’s survey described their farming practices as sustainable, though not all have applied to be certified.
Edwards’ farm supplies its community subscribers with organically grown vegetables. Dunn’s family farm limits use of antibiotics and uses managed intensive grazing. The method allows a section of pasture to fully regrow and recover before being used again, allowing for healthier and more resilient pastures and soils, she said.
“Something about choosing this as a lifestyle has led a lot of young farmers to choose more sustainable farming methods,” Dunn said.
We didn't grow up on farms. We've chosen to farm. We know kind of the barriers to farming and how hard this life is and we've chosen to do it anyway.
- Alyssa Dunn
Crow's Creek Farm
Meriwether said he has learned young farmers are coming up with innovative techniques. He found, for example, backyard urban gardening in Utah where farmers borrowed land for free to grow vegetables.
“There’s a huge amount of momentum for the local food movement. A lot of farmers markets just keep popping up and people are really excited to buy food directly from farmers. As far as the number of farmers, we’re definitely still short. We need more if we want to continue to feed ourselves,” Meriwether said. “As far as food security is concerned, then we’re absolutely going to need to figure out a way to get young people farming.”
CHALLENGES THEY FACE
Meriwether said young farmers are particularly struggling with access to land and cost of equipment.
Edwards still is a tenant farmer, three years into her five-year lease on the 8 acres she uses to grow vegetables. She said she’s been unable to find land to buy, thanks to a limited amount for sale and the high cost.
She said there’s a big disconnect between what size local zoning ordinances require a farm to be and the amount of money the USDA is willing to loan a beginning farmer. In Johnson County, home to her Wild Woods Farm, a farm is defined as no less than 40 acres.
“Any beginning farmer getting started is going to need to enter in at a lower price point,” Edwards said, adding that in the winter she works for the Farmland Access Hub, an organization that helps beginning farmers work for land access.
“It may not look the same in every county, but there’s some very similar themes in terms of accessing land,” she said.
Fewer than half the coalition’s survey respondents own all the acres they’re farming while. About 39 percent said land access is “a significant challenge.”
Dunn’s chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition is fairly new. While there are plenty of existing agriculture organizations in Iowa, she said, hers has a lobbyist in Washington to help advocate for the needs of young farmers.
“It kind of gives the younger generation of farmers in Iowa a bigger voice, a voice on a more national stage,” Dunn said.
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