New Microloans Could Give Young Farmers the Capital They Need

Beginning farmers don’t need much money to get started. But until now, the USDA had no way of giving them any loans at all.

Farmers are not a good investment risk. Their business requires substantial influxes of capital to erect barns, buy tractors, and plant seeds, with little guarantee of return. When a river floods or a heat wave hits, it can throw the best business plan off course. One of the best ways for farmers to borrow money is to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing. (Unfortunately, there’s a huge amount of paperwork involved in these loan programs.)

But young and beginning farmers don’t need all that. Starting out, a farmer might need a few thousand to buy a truck, some tools, or a round of seed. Young farmers who want to start small, often organic farms have had trouble getting access to that kind of money. When the National Young Farmers Coalition asked beginning farmers last year to list the challenges they faced, lack of capital came out on top.

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It's time for a National Young Farmers Coalition to combine politics and pitchforks. It's an old joke, but it says a lot. "What do you call...

It's time for a National Young Farmers Coalition to combine politics and pitchforks.

It’s an old joke, but it says a lot.

“What do you call it when a farm is willed to your children?”

“Child abuse.”

Seriously though, farming is hard work and farmers make up an increasingly small segment of the population. And that segment is getting pretty old. Every five years, the USDA conducts its Agricultural Census and finds that the average farmer generally becomes a year older (from 2002 to 2007, the average age climbed from 56 to 57).

“Young people are where the bottleneck is,” says Jack Algiere, the grower at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which hosts an annual Young Farmers Conference. “There’s a lot of interest, but not a lot of skill or actual training for young people to get into this industry.”

Internships, conferences, and school gardening programs are slowly turning that around. And there’s no shortage of urban longing for a simpler life; its latest incarnation is a hipster culture obsessed with food and hyperlocalization—just look around Brooklyn. From tractor seats that double as barstools to rooftop farms, rural chic is very much in vogue. In Japan—another postindustrial, consumer-oriented culture with an agricultural past—this agrarian longing has manifested itself in a magazine devoted to youth farming called Agrizm. The graphic, boldly designed quarterly profiles entrepreneurial farmers and businesses across Japan. It also attempts to connect like-minded youth through positive stories (and a matchmaking column).

Severine von Tscharner Fleming has been trying to capture youthful agrarian passions stateside. She’s working on a film, The Greenhorns (coming late summer), that provides an introduction to the trials, tribulations, and thrills of being a young farmer. She says, “In process of making this film, I had been encouraged by people like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who told me, 'It’s your job to organize yourself to have a coherent political voice. The system is prejudiced against you. It’s not enough to farm. You have to make agriculture a viable profession for young farmers. You’ve got to get involved in the Farm Bill.' Ben Shute and I met at Stone Barns and we heard that, yes, indeed we need a voice.”

The recently launched National Young Farmers’ Coalition, a membership-based advocacy group, which plans to lobby Congressional leaders with petitions and signatures and coordinate campaigns. “We want vivacious protests in the European tradition where farmers bring their goddamn cows out to meet the riot cops,” Fleming says. “We need to get the attention of our lawmakers. Because otherwise, it ain’t gonna work.”

Modern first-generation farmers may have started by dreaming of a never-never farmland, living alone on the rugged coast of Maine like Helen and Scott Nearing, those godly godparents of the back-to-the-land movement, did in 1952. To preserve a viable profession, however, this new generation of young farmers has to be able to not only grab the bull, but also the bullhorn.

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