After 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.
Inspired 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: http://www.farmlandinfo.org/beginningfarmers. 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: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/newfarmers?navid=newfarmers.
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