Young midwestern farmers want to grow sustainable food – but they need help
Written by Adrian White
On a recent chilly afternoon, Natasha Hegmann, 28, and her husband, Pete Kerns, 27, tended the fire of a giant copper boiler holding some 250 gallons of maple sap. The sap had flowed into the boiler overnight through a series of pipes from nearby trees. Turning the gooey sap into syrup will take days.
A native Iowan, Hegmann worked at a number of local community farms before her and Kerns set up their own, Turkey River Farms, in 2015 to grow vegetables in warmer months and harvest maple sap during the winter. The couple thought about farming in other states but ultimately decided to stay in Iowa because of the support given by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a 32-year-old nonprofit that aims to attract new and young farmers to the field and teach them to grow food organically. The group offers workshops and a program that gives funds to match the money saved by new farmers over a period of time.
“PFI has been huge for us,” Hegmann says. “It’s actually part of the reason that we chose to settle and start our farm in Iowa.”
For decades, the midwest has boasted the highest concentration of farms in the US, and is also a crucial agricultural region, both for local food production and food that is exported. Today, midwestern states, particularly Iowa, are the second leading producers of crops and livestock behind California, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) census. This says a lot about the midwest’s potential for being the next sustainable food production hub in the US.
But here’s the trouble: statistically, young people just aren’t that into farming. In the most recent USDA agricultural census, new farmer numbers dropped by around 20% between 2007-2012, with the majority of farmers falling somewhere between the ages of 55-64, consistent with a 30-year trend. The culprits of this trend: a diminishing ability to subsist on farming income, an increase in debt needed to farm and general rural poverty.
Young people are leaving the midwest faster than anywhere else. “Farming is also not on the typical list of ‘hot’ careers for twenty-somethings, and the barriers to entry can seem daunting,” says Gary Adamkiewicz, assistant professor of Environmental Health and Exposure Disparities at Harvard University.
One of the biggest roadblocks for beginning farmers is land access. Land costs continue to climb and, despite the enormous land transference to come as older farmers retire – 70% of the nation’s farmland over the next two decades – most of it may not end up in the hands of willing young farmers but in the hands of property developers.
For farmers just cutting into the market, starting small, and wanting to grow sustainably, the odds are not great. Large farms have the scale, money and freedom to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to maximize yields. Organic farming, on the other hand, can be more profitable but takes more land to grow the same amount of food as conventional farming. Farmers are limited in the types of chemicals they can use to get rid of pests and nurture crops, and organic certification is long and expensive. The USDA requires farmers to demonstrate organic practices for three years before they can be certified – but farmers are not allowed to increase the prices of their products during this time to be on par with other organic produce.