Author Archives: Julia Freedgood

Julia Freedgood

About Julia Freedgood

Julia Freedgood is Assistant Vice President of Programs at American Farmland Trust

Cultivating the Next Generation: Beginning Farmers Success Stories

trapp23After working as a mechanical engineer, Mark Trapp decided to be a farmer. “I got into farming because of fear for the world I’d bring children into,” he said. “But now it’s a love of the land that keeps me here—and that’s a more positive motivation.”

Mark read books about modern agriculture and agricultural practices before becoming a part-time farmer on a two acre plot near Cleveland, Ohio. After three years, he dreamed of having his own farm.

Mark is not alone. New and beginning farmers struggle to not only find available farmland, but also the capital to get started. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of beginning farmers is at a 30-year low, down 20 percent since 2007. In an effort to help new and beginning farmers succeed in agriculture, American Farmland Trust investigated the challenges and opportunities beginners face and what resources are available to help them. Our report, Cultivating the Next Generation: Resources and Policies to Help Beginning Farmers Succeed in Agriculture, highlights 11 beginning farmers and ranchers from across the country, including Mark Trapp.

New and beginning farmers and ranchers’ most universal challenge is acquiring farmland to rent and buy. Mark took a creative approach; he worked with a local land conservancy working to restore the agricultural heritage of Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, which was designated as a national park. The Conservancy works closely with the National Park Service to select qualified and committed new farmers to make the land productive. Within eight months, Mark had a 60-year lease on 28 fertile acres.

Farmer23Inspired by the local foods movement, freelance writer-turned-farmer Alison Parker apprenticed for a year on an urban farm. Hooked on farming, she interned on a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm before launching Radical Root Organic Farm in Libertyville, Illinois, with Alex Needham. A local nonprofit loaned them a one-acre plot to get started. Ready to expand after only their first season, they couldn’t find land they could afford.

So, they focused on incubator programs and landed on the Farm Business Development Center (FBDC) at Prairie Crossing Farm, “It was a great location,” says Alison, noting that the farm is less than an hour to downtown Chicago. The FBDC provided access to land, key infrastructure and equipment and mentors from Sandhill Organics, the keystone, permanent farm on the Prairie Crossing site. During their first year, Alison and Alex leased two acres, a tractor, and tools. By the end of their fifth season, the farm produced certified organic vegetables, eggs, and honey for 110 CSA members and two larger farmers markets.

Today, thanks to the support of the FBDC, Alison and Alex lease 12 tillable acres of conservation land in a unique land tenure arrangement with a local land trust. Liberty Prairie Foundation leases the land from Conserve Lake County and the forest district and then subleases it to Radical Root Farm. With their biggest hurdle behind them, Alison and Alex are getting equipment and infrastructure in place. They received a small grant, applied for a USDA microloan to purchase a wash-pack facility and cooler, and are using crowdfunding to help pay for a new greenhouse.

Mark, Alison and Alex are beating the odds — they were able to secure land and capital to get started and are succeeding in agriculture.

AFT found many private organizations and public programs to support beginning farmers and ranchers. But, they are widely dispersed and disconnected, making it hard for beginners to find, compare and access those resources, especially state policies. In response, we created a special collection on our Farmland Information Center: In addition, USDA just unveiled a new website to provide a centralized, one-stop resource where beginners can find the variety of USDA initiatives designed to help them succeed:

Read more success stories and find out more about state policies and resources to support beginning farmers and ranchers in American Farmland Trust’s report Cultivating the Next Generation: Resources and Policies to Help Beginning Farmers Succeed in Agriculture

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Reconnecting Farmers and Consumers Makes Dollars and Sense

Americans are hungry for local food. With rising consumer interest in “buying local,” local and regional food systems are emerging to help farmers meet the demand. As the New England Governors Conference identified:

Growing demand for local food … fuels exciting new market opportunities in agriculture. Direct-to-consumer sales – through farmers markets, roadside stands, farm restaurants, and pick-your own operations – have skyrocketed.

The growing interest in locally grown is impacting other aspects of our food production. According to the governors’ report, the direct-to-consumer connection is also sparking interest in land conservation and farmland protection.

Reconnecting the food system also makes economic sense. A recent report, Ohio’s Food Systems – Farms at the Heart of It All, by Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center finds that the clusters of community-based food businesses forming across Ohio create both jobs and collaborative groups of new business owners. At the same time, it questions why  local and regional food—a major industry in the state—have been eroding despite rising personal income and increased food consumption. In fact, the steadiest growth in Ohio’s farm economy—at about five percent annually—involves direct food sales from farmers to consumers. According to Meter, “If this were a single product, it would count as the 13th-ranked farm commodity.”

Food is an important industry in the Buckeye state. Ohioans purchase $29 billion of food per year, and the food industry accounts for 13 percent of the state’s economic activity. According to Meter, state policies that focus on distant markets rather than local consumers are detrimental to the economy—resulting in a $30 billion economic outflow each year, more than four times the $7 billion of total farm production in the state.

Recapturing these dollars would create significant economic opportunities, especially in Ohio where personal income increased 70 percent and food consumption increased 32 percent over the past 40 years. In recent years, direct sales from farmers to consumers rose significantly: 45 percent in Ohio (just shy of the 49 percent national average). The value of those sales rose 70 percent in the state. While the total sales figures remain small, farmer-to-consumer sales are one of the fastest growing sectors of the food economy, offering valuable opportunities to keep farmland in farming, especially in areas where farmers have close access to consumers. Indeed, a report on Northeast Ohio proposes that a 25 percent shift to local products could result in the creation of more than 27,000 jobs!

In Ohio, as in other parts of the country, local and regional food systems face many obstacles when scaling up to meet consumer demand, especially from institutional and other large market outlets. Public and private investment in infrastructure like food hubs (as pointed to by the USDA), processing facilities and distribution channels is needed to foster this growth and incentivize farmers to expand production to meet demand. The time is ripe for collaboration and strategic partnerships that develop the proper infrastructure to better connect farmers and consumers. It’s something that just makes sense.

About the Author: Julia Freedgood is Managing Director for Farmland and Communities at American Farmland Trust.

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Planning for Landscape Integrity in the 21st Century

The National Agricultural Landscapes Forum brought together thought-leaders from around the country to foster a deeper understanding and dialogue about major trends and issues shaping the future of agriculture, conservation and rural regions. Held April 7 and 8 in the shadow of a federal government shutdown, the forum put forward policy and program opportunities to increase government effectiveness and engender cross-jurisdictional collaborations that improve agricultural and conservation outcomes in a sober budgetary environment.

The following is the first in a series of stories that will reflect on the major themes from the forum and what they mean for 21st century agriculture.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail

(L to R) Blue Ribbon Panel Members A.G. Kawamura, Patrick O'Toole and Varel Bailey

The need to think strategically about the future of agriculture was a sentiment shared among the conservation leadership gathered at the recent National Agricultural Landscapes Forum. Looking at the landscape from his vantage as former California Secretary of Agriculture, A.G.Kawamura described California AgVision 2030—a stakeholder-driven effort to shape the state’s food and farming system—as an example of how to bring diverse interests to the table to move agricultural policy into the 21st century. Calling for an agricultural renaissance, Kawamura shared his perspective on converging watersheds, foodsheds and energysheds that will create dynamic communities and end the 20th century exodus from rural America. “The human landscape means there’s an ag landscape as a part of the human environment,” he explained. “How do we plan the environment so it’s sustainable in all its different aspects?”

One answer came from Richard Barringer, Research Professor in Planning, Development and Environment at the University of Southern Maine. Barringer pointed to the New England governors’ Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Land Conservation. This ground-breaking initiative addresses five regional landscape themes, including keeping “Farmlands in Farming” and “Forests as Forests.” While New England, according to Barringer, is a “land of rugged individualists, we’re living in new time,” and this effort embodies several key principles: private ownership creates challenges and opportunity; collaboration is absolutely necessary; and conservation solely for natural benefits is no longer enough–today we must incorporate the social and economic benefits. Working together must be a part of the plan. Inspired by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak’s address at an America’s Great Outdoors workshop in March, Barringer concluded, “Our conservation legacy will be defined by new partnerships and collaboration.”

A changing demographic landscape

A necessity for more effective collaboration points to a need to understand who will be farming in the 21st century. In a poignant keynote address, Sec. Vilsak’s Chief of Staff, Krysta Harden, asked, “Are we talking to all the right people to ask them what they need or are we only talking to people we are comfortable with and know?” She pressed further: “Are we talking to people who feel like they don’t usually have a place at the table?”

According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of farmers in the country is 57.

Walter Hill, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences at Tuskegee University, reminded us that historically we have not succeeded in engaging the whole community. The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows growing ethnic, racial and gender diversity and a rapidly aging farm population. Farm operators 75 years and older increased by 20 percent while those under age 25 dropped 30 percent. Farmers aged 65 or older own 21 percent of America’s farmland, suggesting a huge transfer of land is imminent.

Hill challenged the audience, comprised largely of gray-haired men, “to get inclusion from every group that you can.” He advised, “Building trust is a monster; it takes time.” By 2042, the U.S. Census Bureau also predicts that current minority populations will become the majority, and it is time to start now if we want to be ready.

Beyond the tipping point?

As former Secretary of Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Roger Allbee pointed out, it has been 30 years since the National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS), the only time the federal government has comprehensively assessed the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s agricultural land base. Since then, he said, “We’ve lost as much farmland as Illinois and New Jersey put together.” Proportionally more of our best land has been lost, especially prime farmland and cropland. As Craig Cox, senior vice president of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Environmental Working Group stated bluntly, “The 21st century reality is we’ll have less land and water with which to do more.”

Since NALS, we have developed 41 million acres of rural land—or one out of three acres ever developed in this country. Cox was spot on when he said we’ve been “losing rather than gaining ground.”

(L to R) Ross Racine, Jon Scholl, Otto Doering III, Varel Bailey, Julia Freedgood, A.G. Kawamura, John Stierna

Assuming development continues its historical pattern—consuming our best agricultural soils fastest— Jeff Herrick, research soil scientist with USDA Agricultural Research Service, believes demand for farmland will drive expansion onto marginal lands or rangelands. He called for resilient landscapes that have the capacity to recover from extreme weather events: “Sustainable production at landscape scale.” However, with a rapid increase in non-operator landowners, especially in the Corn Belt, Iowa State Assistant Professor J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., predicts that future landowners will be further removed from the land, both geographically and culturally, less likely to participate in working lands programs and will spend less on conservation.

A challenge worth taking

If we continue these patterns, where will we be in 2042 when the world population is predicted to be nine billion people? The National Agricultural Landscapes Forum presented a valuable baseline but now we need to answer the big questions: How much land will we need to meet 21st century demands not just for food, fiber and fuel but also for clean air and water and biodiversity? What do we need to do now to secure it? Who will be the farmers and ranchers of tomorrow and what resources will they have to conserve and protect our precious agricultural landscape?

What rang clear from the voices emerging from the forum was the need to think strategically and plan for the future of agriculture, conservation and our precious land and water resources. As Craig Cox advised, “We will have to run much faster and smarter to stay in the same place.” It has never been more urgent to conduct a forward-looking assessment of the agricultural landscape and create the vision and policy direction needed to ensure—borrowing from Aldo Leopold—its integrity, stability and embodiment of community.

About the Author: Julia Freedgood is Managing Director for Farmland and Communities at American Farmland Trust.

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Innovation Through Collaboration at the National Agricultural Landscapes Forum

The nation has its eyes on agriculture, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently celebrating National Agriculture Week and countless state and local organizations recognizing the importance of our working lands and the farmers and ranchers who manage them. However, since 1982, the U.S. developed 41 million rural acres—that’s one out of three acres ever developed in this country! Looking forward, with a third of farm operators now older than age 65, a huge transfer of land and resources is imminent. Given an estimated world population of nine billion people in 2050, even greater competition for land and water is looming on the horizon.

With this expected population growth, how much land and water do we need to meet present and future demands for food, energy and environmental services? Have we already converted/diverted too much? How do we ensure conservation outcomes while preserving land and water rights?

Recognizing tight budgets and multiple resource demands, 21st century solutions will require greater cooperation among agricultural producers, all levels of government and private-sector partners to focus on conservation outcomes instead of jurisdictional authorities. Toward this end, American Farmland Trust has partnered with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Foundation NFP to host a National Agricultural Landscape Forum in Washington, D.C., on April 7–8, 2011.

Guided by a Blue Ribbon Panel of leaders in agriculture and conservation, authorities from around the country will debate new policy approaches that are needed to sustain agriculture as a vital component of the nation’s landscape and to protect the health of the precious natural resources upon which our nation’s security depends.

Regional roundtables are currently being held by Farm Foundation NFP to bring diverse “on-the-ground” perspectives to inform forum discussions. Outcomes from the roundtables and national forum are part of the public input process required by the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) and will be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs aimed at improving environmental quality and rural development.

Creating opportunities to work together in a strategic, coordinated fashion is essential. How do we redesign the institutional structures we have now to reduce silos and promote partnerships among agencies, levels of government and producers? Finding ways to increase collaboration and share scarce resources is a sentiment shared by our national leaders. As Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Ranking Member of the Senate Ag Committee, recently explained in a National Ag Day address, the future of federal agricultural programs is dependent on everyone working together. Sen. Roberts is forming plans with Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to hold farm bill hearings around the country to illuminate key issues in agriculture. With the pending opportunity to share opinions that could inform the outcome of the 2012 Farm Bill, the National Agricultural Landscapes Forum will provide an early incubator for ideas and solutions from a broad spectrum of agricultural and conservation interests.

Engaging with a strong lineup of speakers and presenters, forum-goers will be involved in discussions that will shape future policy and determine the course of agriculture over the coming years. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan will carry on the energy of National Ag Week and kick off the forum as keynote speaker. A G Kawamura, former California Secretary of Agriculture and partner with us in the ground-breaking Ag Vision 2030 initiative, will present on “Foodsheds, Energy Sheds and Watersheds.” NRCS Chief Dave White will provide a venue to share a wide range of concerns as Blue Ribbon Panelists recap what they heard at the Farm Foundation NFP Regional Roundtables.

Please join us, our partners and the Blue Ribbon Panel in a vigorous discussion about how to ensure the health and prosperity of the nation’s agricultural landscape.

Register now for the opportunity to take part in this critically important dialogue.

About the Author: Julia Freedgood is Managing Director for Farmland and Communities at American Farmland Trust.

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