Much has been written about the “graying” of American farmers; they are, as a group, getting older. As of the 2012 USDA Farm Census (the most recent), the majority of our farmers were 55 or older.
But there are signs that younger farmers are getting into the business. Nearly 20 percent of the new farms counted in the last census were operated by folks younger than 35. With a new census under way this year, those numbers are likely to show increases. Certainly, the growing interest in organic and local foods is fueling interest in a life on the land.
Starting a farm, however, is no walk in the park. Good farmland is expensive to buy or lease, and even the smallest scaled operation has a high capital investment in equipment. Moreover, a simple enjoyment of high quality food paired with a desire to farm does not necessarily translate into the ability to create a successful and sustainable farm business.
A number of organizations have stepped up to help beginning farmers face these and other challenges. One of them, The Land Connection (TLC), based in Champaign, Illinois, provides extensive training for would-be farmers—and has helped nearly 200 farmers put down roots in central Illinois.
TLC designed their programs to support new farmers throughout the process of establishing a successful enterprise. The Farm Dreams program is for folks still fantasizing about life on a farm. The three-hour workshop is held on a successful farm and provides key insights to moving from dreams to reality.
For those ready to take the plunge, TLC’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings (CIFB) program provides more intensive instruction through seminars, workshops and field days. CIFB participants are also paired with mentors—experienced, successful farmers who can show them the ropes.
More established farmers can take advantage of programs that provide continuing education, field days and other forms of learning.
While the heart of TLC’s mission is helping food producers, the organization also focuses on consumers. After all, without an educated and active food consumer movement, small-scale sustainable farming couldn’t thrive. To that end, they’ve launched a farmers market and several farm preservation initiatives.
“To create a healthy, vibrant food system, our whole community must participate,” explains executive director Cara Cummings. “That’s why we interact with people at as many points in the system as possible—from training farmers, to working with chefs, to improving food access in our community.”
Read about another organization that’s helping beginning farmers start out on on solid ground.