Columnist Claire Morenon: The next generation of farmers needs support

Farmers, as a population, are aging — the average age of farmers in Massachusetts is 59.1. The future of agriculture in our region depends on young people entering farming, but the barriers to entry are numerous and high for farmers who are just starting out.

Accessing land is the primary hurdle for many first-generation farmers. Massachusetts farm real estate values are among the highest in the nation, averaging $10,400 per acre, compared to a national average of $3,080. This is a financial hurdle that some prospective farmers just can’t cross, and many others start out heavily leveraged.

Most new farmers get established on rented land. The uncertainty of renting makes it hard to plan for the future and makes it risky to invest in buildings, wells, or long-term crops like fruit trees. Whether they own or rent their land — or a little bit of both — many farmers can’t find contiguous parcels to farm. This means that farmers spend a significant amount of time moving equipment, crops, and staff between far-flung fields. If they are renting multiple parcels, they must build and maintain relationships with several landlords and neighbors.

A handful of programs and nonprofits ease the land access burden for some farmers. The state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program, which keeps farmland open by buying the development rights, reduces the cost of protected land, and area land trusts are important partners on land preservation projects.

Land access isn’t only about land values, though — it’s also about relationships and networking. A lot of agricultural land never goes on the open market, and many nonfarming landowners rent their land through word of mouth and handshake agreements. This insularity makes it hard for new farmers to enter the system.

Beginning farmers face a serious learning curve. Building a new farm business goes well beyond the (very real!) challenges of successful food production. Elly Vaughan is wrapping up her third season as owner of Phoenix Fruit Farm, which recently opened a new farm store in Belchertown. She says, “It’s really been trial by fire over the last couple of years. Even with a B.S. in Plant, Soil, and Insect Science and years of working on established vegetable farms, I’ve just had so much to learn.”

New farmers develop their markets from scratch and must adapt their marketing plans to unanticipated and changing realities. To run a farm business, farmers need skills in marketing, branding, good employee management practices and business planning. Many new farmers come in with a lot of work history and knowledge, and they still need support to develop the wide variety of skills needed to be successful. Several local organizations, including CISA, provide this assistance to new farmers, but a regional assessment recently concluded that farms need much more in-depth, one-on-one support than is currently available.

Young farmers who are returning to a family farm face their own challenges. They may be starting out with land and an established business but working with relatives can be both a blessing and a complication. Adult children and their parents must participate in emotionally-charged conversations about farm succession and navigate shifts in authority. On the financial side, when someone returns to the family farm, the business may need to expand to support an additional family. This can put real pressure on existing systems and force hard changes — and it can also bring farms forward in exciting and hopeful ways.

These challenges are daunting for any new farmer, but they are compounded for people of color. The most recent Census of Agriculture showed that in our three-county region, 98.7% of farms are principally operated by white farmers — a percentage that hasn’t budged from previous years. This disparity is the result of income inequality, historical discrimination in lending and sharp racial segregation between rural and urban communities.

Many of the workers on local farms, who might be the best candidates to move into management and ownership positions, are disqualified because they have no path to U.S. citizenship. Real change to address these inequities will depend on policy solutions and an honest reckoning with the ways that racism has shaped current land and farm ownership. Taking up these challenges could offer solutions to the shortage and undervaluing of farm labor and the pressing problem of farm succession.

Farmers need support at every stage of their business, whether they are brand new or many decades in. But as we consider the future of our local food system, we must take special care to ensure that young farmers have equitable pathways into agriculture.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).