Skip to main content

Discrimination against young/beginning farmers?

The title of this post very well could be "A Farm That Got Away."

I happened, by chance, across a tweet from a farm organization that was retweeting a land conservation non-profit's bid process on a 35 acre historic farm in Vermont. The photos were lovely. It had an old, well-maintained house, a picturesque red barn from 1911, green pastures, trees, hills, and the property was cut into halves by a river. And the asking price was (irony you'll see later) about the same as our 2-bedroom condo here in Chicago. So it wasn't some unrealistic $800,000 giant mass of acres somewhere with tons of equipment. It has an ag easement on it...but if you've read my previous posts that scares me none. We intend to keep it agricultural. They want food or fiber to be produced? Check. Totally onboard with the mission to preserve farmland. They had nice aerial maps and a great description of all the outbuildings along with a soil map.

Then things got dicey when I asked them on Facebook about their requirements in the Request for Proposal for farming references. Press of past agricultural operations? That's a new one. They're looking for economic analysis, a business plan (that's pretty normal), 3 years of income/expense projections, only experienced need apply.

I replied:
That's unfortunate to hear as it sounded like a great property we were discussing. I think young/beginning farmers tend to feel the deck is stacked against us enough out there when trying to get on land. It's disheartening to see this. Hopefully you take another look at that policy for future...for the sake of my fellow young/beginning farmers.
Whoever had responded to my post pointed me in the direction of a program for newbies...yes, there are many. Some better than others. I don't think some of the "helpers" out there have a real appreciation from the beginning/young farmer POV about what it's like to try to get on land. Forget the endless search for property that has a house that meets your needs, a barn that meets your needs, pasture that meets your the fencing good? Is there water? But on top of that is the navigation of FSA loans, multi-step beginner programs that sometimes take months or even years. You have to take into consideration that a starter flock is going to take time to mature and the time it takes to get electric fencing ordered and installed. Cuts into the 3 year plan, no?

The funny thing is The Mama and myself had just been having a conversation at the sheep festival over the weekend about how it was a nice check-in. We'd put the active search for a farm on the back burner for awhile, but realized we hadn't lost the desire to keep looking. Being around livestock only made us what to do it more.

Nothing was really lost here. Other than maybe an opportunity. What I found frustrating is that you'd think historic preservation, good farm practices, ag easement for land conservation...these should be natural fits for a beginning farmer and an org looking to put a farm in good hands.

The deeper I dive into this world, however, the more I'm learning that farming is just as clique-ish as anything else. I often write/talk/joke about "sheep people." Shepherds and knitters...especially when it comes to folks who deal with heritage sheep breeds and have a true love of fiber animals...are a different sort. Younger farmers tend to view the world differently than older, retiring ones. Family farmers tend to view the world differently than larger farms. It's tough to sort out but you find your place.

And the sad fact is that sometimes you have to make your own niche. There is no circled brotherhood of people leaving the urban life to start farming in their 30's. We exist. There are many of us. But we're a disorganized bunch when it comes to wanting to be social about our process. There's no universal gateway to log on and search for a landowner who wants a young family to put some rare sheep in their field.

So you find where you match best. The Mama knows, for instance, that I have a secret affinity for Amish farms. They're big, they're cheap, they're well-cared-for, they're built for a family, they have the buildings for our style of large grain silos or machines to worry about. But, if you get lucky, you'll maybe get a sugar shack for making maple syrup on the property.

Or, conversely, you have to know going in that if you ask a conventional farmer on the plains about possibly putting a flock of conservation-status sheep on the farm instead of corn or soybeans, they'll look at you a little weird.

The search continues. One day, we'll stumble across something we love at the right price in the right location and you'll get tired of seeing the posts about lambing or what our hay tested. For now, I'm left wondering if some of the people who think they're "assisting" beginning farmers, farmland preservation, assisting with non-traditional farm transfers, etc. really help many. The federal govt is getting better, at least. But I wonder how many of us are just winging it, doing our thing, maybe going for land that we adapt to rather than land that's perfect.