Where will Future Organic Farmers of America come from?

Young Organic FarmerIn my previous reflections on small and big organic, I neglected to mention that agricultural trends in general are not promising for small or large farmers. The USDA preliminary agricultural census for 2012 was released in late February and had disconcerting information about American agriculture. The census showed that the number of farmers is declining and that the average farmer is getting older. This led me to ponder these question: where will our new youthful organic farmers come from? How do we foster the next generation to take up organic production and flourish? 

The Agriculture Census had some good news. The value of agricultural products sold in the United totaled $394.6 billion in 2012 and was up $97.4 billion from 2007. Some of the more dour reports showed the number of farms dropped from 2.2 million in 2007 to 2.1 million in 2012, a decline of 4.3 percent, which is a long-term trend in agriculture. And, yes, farms are getting bigger and more consolidated, as the average farm size rose from 418 acres to 434 acres, an increase of 3.8 percent. It’s getting harder to make a living farming; the census showed the number of small farms in which the farmer needs non-farm income is growing. Middle-sized operations are continuing to decline.

The most disturbing news is that we are facing an epidemic shortage of farmers and the ones we have are growing old. The average age of the US farmer is now 58 years of age (up from 51 years in 1982). What this means is we have an aging population of seasoned farmers continuing on with very few young people emerging to pass on this age old profession to. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took note on the subject when he said, “The rising age of farmers shows the necessity of continuing to promote exports, which helps large-scale producers, and local and regional production and new products, which helps younger, smaller producers.”  What better way to promote regional, local and export products than through organic agriculture and all its potential!

It was just over one year ago that a young man named Adam Borden from Bradmer Foods tracked me down with an interesting idea. He had heard about the newly formed UNFI Foundation and wanted to talk to me about broadening the impact. It was on a cold and blustery autumn day that I met this then-stranger for a delectable locavore Maryland lunch over which we discussed a few big ideas. On the table: What was the most pressing issue of the day for organic agriculture and how could organic companies come together to make the greatest impact on that issue? An idea was born at that table that took over 14 months to germinate and flourish. The Future Organic Farmers Grant Fund, born over an organic kale salad, is now a reality and aims to assist young people entering the fields of organic agriculture.

My eyes were moist when, on March 7, 2014, the press release finally went out! “The CCOF Foundation and UNFI Foundation, along with other industry leaders Driscoll’s, Organic Valley, and Bradmer Foods are supporting the education of new farmers, ranchers, and food processors by establishing the Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund, a first-of-its-kind collaboration among organic industry leaders,” it read. “The fund will focus its grants in three target areas: K-12 educational projects, individual grants for higher and vocational education, and a focus on disadvantaged communities.” These companies, with the same concern and vision, all pooled their resources to provide a start-up amount of $50,000 in direct financial support for the education of future organic farmers and agricultural professionals. The grants will be awarded directly to students who aspire to begin careers in organic agriculture.

The organic sector is growing at double digits each year and continues to be the brightest economic star in the firmament of agriculture. Organic products are growing locally at CSA’s and internationally through vigorous export opportunities.  Cathy Calfo, Executive Direct from the CCOF Foundation summed it up when she said, “Among the challenges to meeting the rising demand for organic products is the need for new organic farmers and entrepreneurs. More than 80 percent of Americans now purchase organic products, and demand continues to outpace the supply.”

Serendipity seems to prevail in my world as I am blessed to work with so many amazing people who hold the same vision of agriculture as I do. As part of my work with the UNFI Foundation, I am a member of the Sustainable Ag and Food Systems Funders, which is an international network of grant makers that works to foster communication and share information about issues connected to sustainable agriculture and food systems. The Executive Director Virginia Clarke summed it up in her TEDx Manhattan talk, Changing the Way we give, when she said, “We need to use all the tools we can if we are going to change our food system … Give money and get dirty, stand in possibility… If we are going to make the change in the food system we want, we have to believe that it is possible.”

Let’s use our collective strengths to help our youth become vibrant organic producers. Let’s enable them to be stewards of the soil and water to build a sustainable organic food system! Guidelines and applications for the Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund will be available in April 2014. For more information about the application process or to contribute to the fund, contact:  ccoffoundation@ccof.org.

62 thoughts on “Where will Future Organic Farmers of America come from?

    • Hi Caroline,
      I love your video! Would you mind if I included it in my next Blog post on Expo West?
      If I have permission I will use your name and say something like.
      Check out this video that Caroline Brooke and her sister made on Expo West. They are trying to spread the word about eating organics and staying healthy.
      Let me know and thanks!

      Melody L Meyer
      VP Policy and Industry Relations UNFI
      phone 401.528.8634 ext 62225
      Fax 831/462-5718
      SKYPE melody.meyer
      Visit my Blog at http://www.organicmattersblog.com
      [Description: Description: UNFI]

  1. My husband and I are trying to start an organic farm in NW PA. We are not school age though, ha, ha! We are near 40 years old. Do you know of any programs (grants, low interest loans,etc.) for people like us?

    • Hi Autumn,
      Yes the USDA has plans to increase access to its programs and people by boosting outreach and education. It will adjust policies, expand market news and strengthen the programs so they work for small growers. More information about tools and resources available to small and mid-sized farmers will be rolled out in the coming months on USDA’s Small and Mid-Sized Farmer Resources webpage.
      According to the USDA website, the new efforts include:
      ACCESS TO CAPITAL

      * Changes to the Farm Storage and Facility Loan (FSFL) Program to help small and midsized fruit and vegetable producers access the program for cold storage and related equipment like wash and pack stations.
      * Funding for producers under the popular microloan program. USDA launched the microloan program to allow beginning as well as small and mid-sized farmers to access up to $35,000 in loans using a simplified application process.
      Also Funding for hoop houses to extend the growing season. Hoop houses provide revenue opportunities while also promoting conservation for small and mid-sized farmers.
      All of this will be outlined in a future Blog! Thanks

      Melody L Meyer
      VP Policy and Industry Relations UNFI
      phone 401.528.8634 ext 62225
      Fax 831/462-5718
      SKYPE melody.meyer
      Visit my Blog at http://www.organicmattersblog.com
      [Description: Description: UNFI]

  2. Pingback: USDA gives small and medium sized farms a helping hand! | Organic Matters

  3. My boyfriend and I have an organic garden, and we don’t by anything from the stores that isn’t safe. We live mostly off the land with food that is provided to us by nature, and we’d LOVE to be organic farmers/homesteaders some day.

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