Full text of Lindsey Lusher Shute’s talk: Building a Future with Farmers at TEDxManhattan 2013 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Building a Future with Farmers by Lindsey Lusher Shute at TEDxManhattan 2013
My guess is that a lot of you in this room can think of someone in your family who farmed way back. The last person before I came along to farm in my family was this guy. My great-grandfather Henry Clarkis Sheets. Henry farmed in the foothills of southeast Ohio where he produced dairy, pork, tobacco, chickens and every fall he used his team of horses to haul apples for a guy named old man Burdet over Brothers Hill to Gallipolis, where those apples were floated down the Ohio River to Cincinnati.
This is Henry at the age of 90 running a track with suspenders. Henry worked hard. And he earned enough to own land, build a farm, build a house and get three of his kids to college, my grandmother included. Those kids became a teacher, a principal, a gas station owner, a welder. But none of them farmed.
That career path that Henry put his kids on so many years ago is the same one that 99% of us are still on today. For generations, farm families have been sending their children away from the farm. And for some good reasons. A dairy crisis, discrimination by the USDA against farmers of color, consolidation, vertical integration, skyrocketing land prices and plummeting incomes. Life has been really tough for a lot of farm families. And opportunity outside of the farm has only grown.
That’s why today there are 28 million fewer farmers in the United States than in 1920 when Henry was farming. And this is in a country with 200 million more people to feed. And because so many young people have left farming, farmers over the age of 65 now outnumber farmers under the age of 35 by a margin of 6 to 1.
My husband and I are farmers. I’m 34. So I’m one of those ones. We along with thousands of young people across this country are bucking the trend by starting a farm operation of our own. These young farmers and ranchers represent an incredible opportunity for the future of food and farming in the United States. They are cultivating their crops by hand and with tractors, this is an Alllis-Chalmers G, tractors that haven’t seen the outside of a barn for 50 years. They are putting their chickens, pigs, cows, goats back on grass where they belong and they are providing jobs and opportunity in parts of the United States that have not seen new industry in decades. They are also growing some amazing food.
These young farmers are demonstrating as have many generations before them that the more a farmer can care for the land the more that land gives back. And not just to a farmer and her family but to an entire community.
This is our farm, Hearty Roots Community Farm. It’s about 100 miles north of this spot. We grow 25 acres of vegetables and produce eggs for a community-supported agriculture program. This CSA program feeds 900 households in the Hudson Valley and here in New York City.
Each year our farm grosses about $425,000 most of which goes to local job creation. We hire about 9 employees, some seasonally, some year-round and they in turn take their paychecks and spend them on local goods and services. We source most of the inputs for our farm locally or regionally and we use a very small percentage of our budget to pay for fossil fuels.
Now compare that with commodity corn, which actually makes sense as a comparison because it’s what our farm was growing before we transitioned it to vegetables. Twenty-five acres of corn is going to gross about $25,000. Half of that is going to be spent on fossil fuels, GMO seed, inputs and only about $750 is going to be spent on labor.
So if Ben and I wanted to create the same benefits growing corn that we do growing vegetables just in terms of jobs we would need to grow 5,000 acres of corn. Which happens to be half of the size of our town of Clermont, New York. And that would be a terrible thing for Clermont, New York because the more farmers you have maximizing the value of the land the more benefits a community and a region can experience.
As I said before, the more a farmer cares for the land, the more they’re able to care for the land, the more that land gives back. What would our rural areas look like if we had one million more farms in this country? Like the Salad Garden in Missouri. Like the West Georgia Cooperative. Like Three Springs Farm in Oaks, Oklahoma. Like Kilpatrick Farm in Albany, New York. Like Bucio Farm in Salinas, California. Or like Sauvie Island Organics outside of Portland.
Just think of the health, economic and environmental benefits that these farms would bring to our communities. We need more farmers. We need a million more farmers. But a million more farmers are not just going to come along. It is not 1920 when Grandpa Henry was farming. Land is crazy expensive. It took 10 years for my husband and I to figure out how to buy land in the Hudson Valley.
Banks forgot how to loan to us. There is now something called the student loan, which takes hundreds of dollars from your bank account every month for decades. Supply chains are in shambles and the federal government is writing policy to basically perpetuate what we already have. The structural environment that we as farmers are working in today is essentially the same that has been driving farmers out of business for decades.