Op-Ed: To Recruit a New Generation of Farmers, We’ve Got to Get the Story Right

The National Young Farmers Coalition wants to set straight the economic facts of local food production.

The 2012 crew at Lindsey Lusher Shute's New York farm. (Photo: Hearty Roots Community Farm) 

Apr 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is the executive director of the National Young Farmers' Coalition and is the co-owner of Hearty Roots Community Farm

In the past year, the mainstream media featured more than a few stories critiquing America’s local and organic foods movement. The New York Times and others swallowed the findings of a Stanford study debating the value of organic foods hook, line and sinker; Time and Dr. Oz declared, “Organic food is great, it’s just not very democratic”; and NPR recently reported that growing local food doesn’t pay.

Vigorous debate is good, but these stories seemed more about selling clicks and papers than getting the facts straight. And that’s bad news for a nation that’s in need of a new generation of young people to provide it with healthy food.

Among these stories, I find the NPR piece questioning the economic viability of local food most troubling. The story’s summary concludes: “Many economists say despite the charm of local food, there are relatively few benefits in terms of energy efficiency, quality or cost. They say that we shouldn’t knock our system of region specialization and distribution, and that farmers markets, fun though they are, are not good economic mfpaodels.”

NPR’s story steamrolls over a wealth of data and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates that local food is indeed fresher, less expensive than grocery store alternatives and is at the very least carbon neutral—if not a means of carbon sequestration. But perhaps worse, rather than speaking with farmers, the reporter makes the case that local food “doesn’t pay” by interviewing an economist who says that a farmer growing 25 acres of vegetables can only earn $35,000 in total labor income—or enough to pay 1.34 workers. These numbers came from a “classroom configuration.”

In New York, where my husband and I run a diversified 25-acre vegetable farm, these academic numbers are totally off the mark. Each year, our farm employs a seven-member crew on a seasonal basis, and has three managers on the payroll year-round. These workers start at $9/hour and are offered health insurance. We couldn’t possibly grow, harvest, process and distribute our food to the 900 families who subscribe to our CSA with 1.34 people.

Publishing numbers that don’t reflect the reality of farm businesses, and reducing the local foods movement to “charming” and “fun”—when even in 2007 it produced $1.2 billion in sales in the U.S. (doubling the figure from ten years ago)—is irresponsible.

According to the last Agricultural Census, for each farmer under 35 there are six over 65, and the average age of farmers is 57. The USDA expects that one-quarter of all active farmers will retire in the next 20 years. To attract a new generation of young people to farming—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says we need at least 100,000—we’ve got to get the story right.

Yes, it’s true that new farmers will have limited income in their first years as they learn how to farm and develop their products, market, and customer base. Many farmers and their partners will need to work off-farm to make ends meet, and affording health insurance is a major issue. I know this firsthand.

But farming is also a career with significant advantages. It’s an opportunity to work independently and creatively as an entrepreneur, feed a community high-quality, ecologically responsible and humanely raised food, eat well at home, and spend many hours outside, breathing fresh air. Now, as a mom, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to raise our daughter on a farm.

The struggles that farmers face in their first years aren’t reason to give up; they’re only reasons to work harder toward solutions. Farms like ours demonstrate that the local food economy can and does work. With time and the right markets, direct-market farms can produce real jobs and real incomes. It’s this economic potential that young people need to read about in the news, and we as a society need to help make that promise a reality for more new farmers and communities.