You’ve heard it before: U.S. farmers are older than ever. The average age of farmers, according the USDA’s census of farms, is edging ever closer to 60. In 2012, fully 12 percent of principal operators were older than 75.
But as is often the case with averages and statistics, the reality is a little more complicated. For one thing, modern farming requires up-front capital for equipment and land, often passed from one generation to the next. As a result, farm owners have typically been a little older than other workers.
More important, there are pockets of growth, energy and excitement that counter the larger trend. The explosive growth of farmers markets is one example. Organic farming is another.
Driven in part by the economics of supply and demand and, in part, by an enthusiasm for more sustainable food systems, the organic farm movement is growing. Between 1992 and 2011, the amount of organic farmland certified by the USDA increased by 476 percent. It’s no surprise that many of these acres are tended by young farmers. They bring passion and drive to the work of organic farming—but they face some steep challenges, too.
One of these hurdles is knowledge. “A key challenge to growing future organic farmers is the lack of support within the existing farm education network for young people and [lack of] new farmers wishing to pursue careers that focus on organic production methods,” says Cathy Calfo, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), an organic certification and trade organization based in Santa Cruz, California.
Last year, CCOF launched a program designed to provide that missing support. The Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund provides grants to young people seeking an organic education. The program includes three areas of focus: a grant for grade-school teachers who include curriculum investigating organic; one for high-school-aged members of Future Farmers of America to help fund their “supervised agricultural experience”; and one for university students pursuing a career in organic agriculture.
The program is a collaboration between CCOF and Organic Valley, UNFI Foundation, Driscoll’s, and Bradmer Foods, all of which contributed to the fund and help oversee the grants. Many other organic organizations and companies also contributed to the fund.
Organic Valley’s support came through the Farmers Advocating for Organics (FAFO) program, which is administered and funded by farmer-members of the cooperative. Jon Bansen, current FAFO chairperson, says about the Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund, “The ‘A’ in FAFO stands for ‘Advocacy.’ There is no more important work in advocating for organic farming than encouraging our young people to follow their passion on the land. Together, we can give hope to young people looking for a meaningful way to feed the planet.”
The intent of the program is twofold: it not only provides much needed direct support for students interested in pursuing careers in organic farming, but also nudges educational institutions to respond to the demand for more offerings in organic agriculture.
In 2014, ten students were awarded Future Organic Farmer grants of $2,500 each and ten K-8 Ag in the Classroom projects were awarded $1,000 each. Check the Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund website frequently for information about their grant categories and application deadlines.
Organic Valley has long supported the education of our next generation of family farmers and is happy to support the Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund. We look forward to the next generation of agriculture that these young farmers will create.