The main obstacle preventing a younger generation from entering farming is a lack of access to land, the National Young Farmers Coalition said in a recent report that advocates for programs that would advance a new generation of farmers and promote racial equity in the sector.
“Access to land is the number one barrier facing aspiring farmers today, and this barrier is even greater for farmers of color,” said Holly Rippon-Butler, director of the group’s Land Access Program.
About 900 million acres in the United States are used for agriculture, which contributes $132.8 billion to the gross domestic product. But land ownership reflects broad inequities, the report says, with whites owning 98% of the nation’s farmland and accounting for 95% of all farmers. USDA figures also show that a third of farmers are over age 65, while only 9% are 35 or younger.
As farmers retire, farmland often changes hands without ever coming on the market, shutting out those who lack deep community connections to landowners or a family history in agriculture. In 2015, the USDA estimated that less than a quarter of the 91.5 million acres of farmland expected to change hands in the next four years would be made available to people not related to the owner. With 75% of young farmers coming to the profession without a family connection, many talented growers start out at a disadvantage.
“Regardless of geography, or whether or not they grew up on a farm, finding secure access to high-quality land is the greatest barrier faced by farmers and aspiring farmers, and the number one reason farmers are leaving agriculture,” the report says.
Land is also being lost to development, and the share of farmland owned by nonfarmers is increasing. More than 2,000 acres of farmland are lost each day in the United States.
Black, Hispanic and Native American communities have experienced disproportionately high rates of land loss and dispossession, the report says. The number of farms operated by Black farmers, who were excluded from numerous New Deal programs, fell by 98% between 1920 and 1997.
The National Young Farmers Coalition sent an issue paper to the transition team for president-elect Joe Biden, detailing the problems and proposing a plan to support land transition to the next generation of farmers. The plan, which includes priority projects to assist minority farmers, would be funded through public appropriations and private money.
The group is also promoting a program to prequalify young farmers for Farm Service Agency loans. In a recent survey, only about 15% of young farmers reported using these loans. It also advocates creating no-interest loans for beginning farmers of color and establishing lending guidelines for loans to low-income resident farmers and farmer cooperatives made up of people of color.
The young farmers plan would also establish guardrails for guaranteed lenders to prohibit poor treatment of borrowers, particularly Indigenous, Black, and other people of color who are farmers.
Biden has expressed similar goals in his platform, which commits to “explore the use of land trusts, cooperative farm operations, and farm credit systems geared toward Black, Brown, and Native farmers as a means to support this population and diversify our agricultural sector.”
Sen. Corey Booker was lead sponsor on a bill in November that could increase the amount of Black-owned farmland sevenfold by enabling Black farmers to acquire up to 160 acres apiece at no charge through a USDA system of land grants. If enacted, the Justice for Black Farmers Act could transfer up to 32 million acres of land to Black farmers. “When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory practices within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers in the past century,” Booker said at the time.
“Every five years, the farm bill allocates billions of dollars toward food and farm programs, including conservation and farmer training,” Rippon-Butler said. “As we continue to make these important investments in the land, farmers, and our local food systems, we must allocate funds to address the crisis of land access and transition and support community-led efforts toward creating secure, equitable land access for growers.”