If you’re interested in where your food comes from, you’re not alone. Most Americans, it seems, want food that is local, organic, and natural. According to recent research, an overwhelming majority of households in U.S. states—70 to 90 percent— purchase at least some organic foods for their families.
That’s a big change in consumer demand from even 20 years ago. And equally seismic changes are happening on American farms, which supply that demand.
In December and January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out surveys for its 5-year census of agriculture, and most watchers expect it to reflect these shifts. While federal corn and soybean subsidies still prop up the traditional crop farmers, consumer demand has helped launch a “new” kind of farm—smaller, more local, younger, more diverse, and from a business perspective, more nimble and able to respond to the needs of consumers.
It will take months for the USDA to analyze the data, but many in the industry have already acknowledged the shift is underway. Ag schools, for instance, report a growing number of women graduates matriculating to farms. And while Asian and Hispanic farmers are still a minority in the U.S., their rate of growth exceeds other ethnic groups.
None of this is a surprise to the folks at the Minnesota Food Association (MFA). Based in Saint Paul, this nonprofit has provided support for beginning and established farmers since the 1980s.
The group takes a practical approach, with hands-on programs to instruct farmers on the technical and business aspects of running a farm. A cornerstone of their offering is the annual Emerging Farmers Conference, which takes place this year on Friday, January 26, 2018, at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
The event, which was launched by an organization called The Food Group, which merged with MFA this year, provides practical support to farmers who are immigrants or people of color, including Hmong, Hispanic, and other groups. The conference provides translation services in 5 languages, and 75 percent of participants opt into the service. Topic range from the granular, such as how to successfully transplant from a greenhouse or set up a winning farmers market stall, to the macro, such as how to forge common cause with other farmers or successfully balance the books.
If the advice is practical, the implications are paradigm-shifting, according The Food Group’s executive director, Lori Kratchmer. “If we’re going to work for real change at a systems level to address hunger, food justice, and connecting our communities more closely with where our food comes from, we need to see the food system as a whole—from farmer to consumer. We need to help break down barriers that exist in the entire food system.”
For many of the attendees, this philosophical truth is balanced against the concrete necessity to turn the fruits of their labor into a living wage. “The reality is, to do this work, is hard work,” one participant says. “We are trying to make a living. We are trying to make money.”