Challenges for new farmers

Last week, we discussed who will be our new farmers. In short, we concluded that they will be a more diverse group than those retiring. There will be more women. They will operate smaller farms. More will have off-farm employment. Most will not have grown up on a farm.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report entitled “Beginning Farmers and Ranchers” (May 2009), new farmers face two primary obstacles: high startup costs and a lack of available land for purchase or rent. Equipment costs, particularly for raising grain or dairy can amount to $100,000s. Nationwide, farmland real estate prices have risen steadily since 1987, and showed just a small hiccup during the recession.

In Maryland, farmland values dropped significantly following the housing bubble burst. Still, farmland values here tend to be higher than the highly productive Midwest farms, since the development potential of land influences land values more here than in the Midwest. Cash-poor new farmers who don’t inherit a farm may seek land to rent, but often have trouble finding tracts that are not already leased. If they wish to raise vegetables, they will need long-term leases to amortize the costs of an irrigation system and equipment. If they wish to raise farm animals, they will need long-term leases to amortize the cost of fencing, shelter, and water.

In November 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a report entitled   Building a Future With Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed.  The report identifies a number of challenges, including health insurance and need for farmer training. Existing farmers sometimes cite zoning and health regulations as challenges for farmers.

There is one more challenge that must be mentioned –the dirty rumor that there is no profit in farming. In fact, most new farmers lost money in 2007 according to the ag census. A friend of mine asked me what work I was doing with SMADC. When I mentioned that my work included helping to find and assist new farmers, he lowered his voice and asked me confidentially, is there really any future in farming?

I certainly hope so. Farming should not be viewed as a get rich scheme, but when I was growing up on the farm, we had enough money and the farm was a great place to grow up. As a region, we need to work to be sure that we have a culture and regulatory environment  that promotes local agriculture. Sue Bertrand, former Vice President of Heifer Project International once said “When there are no small farms left, when there are no alternative markets, and when the few have control of it all, then the price is what they can get.

There is money in farming, but there are no guarantees when you are relying on mother nature, uncertain markets, and your own good health. One of our blog missions is identifying ways to improve profitability for farmers.

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