Earth & Conservation

Why The U.S. Needs a New Generation of Farmers

If young farmers can't overcome farming industry entry barriers, the United States could be facing a food crisis.

America is in the middle of a farming crisis. Only about 6% of current U.S. farmers are under age 35, which means we may not be able to grow enough food to feed the country in the future.

That's why young people like Leanna Mulvihill are crucial to the future of farming. Mulvihill is the owner of Four Legs Farm in Hudson Valley, New York. She was on track to become an engineer, but felt the pull to have a job that didn't mean sitting at a desk all day. After graduation she decided to take the leap and become a full-time sheep and pig farmer.

"I do not come from a farming background. it took me a while to have the courage to be a farmer," Mulvihill told Seeker.

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Mulvihill would've had a much harder time with her farming endeavor if it wasn't for a unique loan forgiveness program in New York that allowed her to pay off her student loans while also partially financing the farm. Many young people are not so lucky, which is why student debt is a huge factor in preventing them from going into agricultural careers.

"Many young farmers today are discovering agriculture in college," Sophie Ackoff, National Field Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition told Seeker. "They're not growing up in farm families, and this debt that they've accumulated from college is preventing them from getting started."

Of course not every young farmer is brand new to the trade. Seth Squires, a second-generation dairy farmer, also in upstate New York, didn't intend on taking over his father's business, but once he began milking cows while his father was injured, he realized it's what he wants to do.

Financial obstacles are fewer for Squires as he will inherit his family's farm, but he will still come up against the challenge of modernizing his farming techniques to comply with the way Americans buy and consume food today.

One of the challenges he's excited about taking on is the opportunity to pursue organic farming. A 2014 Gallup poll indicated that 45% of Americans actively seek out organic foods to include in their diets. Younger farmers like Squires have the opportunity to indulge this shift towards organics in the way they grow.

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For Mulvihill, her work doesn't end on the farm. Since her financial obstacles are not entirely solved by her loan forgiveness program, she also works a second job at the National Young Farmers Coalition to make ends meet.

"Most of the time I work 12 hour days and I can't really leave the farm for more than a few hours," she said. "I don't really take days off. I always have to do chores and then I go to my job at the National Young Farmers Coalition, which is also a key piece of figuring out how to make this work financially."

With so many obstacles in the way of young people becoming farmers, it's no wonder there aren't more of them. But this will have to change if we don't want America to become dependent on other countries for food.

"In the next 25 years, two-thirds of farmer-owned land in the US will transition ownership. If young farmers aren't successful in taking over this land, it's possible we'll start importing our food from overseas. This is a national-security issue. We need farmers in the United States growing food for our country," Ackoff said.

This is exactly the issue that the National Young Farmers Coalition is trying to tackle. They want to make it financially possible for young people to pursue agriculture. Until that happens, Mulvihill's only option is to find ways to make it work, like applying for grants and renting her farmland instead of owning it.

In spite of the incredible amount of physical and mental exhaustion she endures as a farmer, Mulvihill also feels very lucky to be able to do this. She told Seeker, "I do get to work in a beautiful place, I do get to see spectacular sunsets and I get to see baby animals playing and it's definitely a privilege to be here at all. I try really hard not to take it for granted and to take pause and make sure I'm drinking it all in."

-- Molly Fosco