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.
In response to the challenges that we as farmers were facing, I helped to co-found the National Young Farmers Coalition. We are a team of farmers and consumers that want to see at least a million more farmers in the United States. And we know that big change is necessary to make that happen. We are pushing for innovation in conservation easements to include affordability. We are reforming policy. And we are doing what we can to create a permanent home for independent, sustainable, diversified and organic farmers in the United States.
Last year we did a survey of 1,000 farmers across the country. We asked them, what do you need. And they told us that their number one need is capital. Getting the money to start a farm is really tough. And of course, banks and private interests, I mean they have a role. Investors have a role to play in all of this.
But history teaches us that getting money to farmers is way too important to leave to private interests alone. That’s why the federal government through the Farm Service Agency makes very low interest loans to farmers and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt helped start the Farm Credit Cooperative in 1908. These institutions can do so much more to help the next generation of farmers get started.
Take the Farm Service Agency. They are really stepping up. We’ve worked with them to change their rules to make modern training programs, such as apprenticeships help to qualify young people for one of their loans. We also advocated for micro-lending by the federal government to farmers. And guess what? They listened. They launched a new micro-lending program just this January. Super exciting, right? But these are administrative changes. These are things that the Agency has been doing while Congress has been forgetting to pass a farm bill. They can only do so much.
Actually in the farm bill, Congress, brilliantly, wrote in there that this Farm Service Agency can only lend up to $300,000 to a farmer who wants to buy a farm. When many of us in this room probably realize that in a lot of regions $300,000 is going to hardly buy you a house. And to top it all off this Agency — this is unbelievable to me — this Agency has no permanent funding in the farm bill. So every year they are at the mercy of the Appropriations Committee and farmers are left to wait on loan decisions.
If you want to buy a farm and no one’s going to lend to you except the Farm Service Agency, which is the case a lot of times because traditional lenders think farmers are very risky, which you know can be true, you have to go out and hope that you can find a farm for $300,000. Say you do.
Then you have to go to the owner of that farm and you have to beg them to wade with you through months of bureaucracy while you apply for this loan and just hope that there is going to be a check on the other end. This is no way for our most important farm lender to have to operate. And it is no way for us to get this next generation of farmers started on land when we expect that 70% of all farmland is going to be changing hands in the next 20 years. They are more important than ever. And we have got to help them do their jobs and serve the next generation more effectively.
Speaking of farmland, farmland as you have probably heard in the newspaper is selling for many more times what a working farmer can afford. We need the land trust community to step up and work with government partners to create affordable farmland.
So here in Manhattan on this island, you know you have affordable housing so regular people can continue to live here. Well, in our rural communities we need affordable farms so farmers can continue to farm and own land. And in the Midwest, we’ve got to trade some of those subsidies that are growing megafarms for incentives to help young and beginning farmers get ground. They need that land.
But the National Young Farmers Coalition, we are not waiting on Congress. As I said before they forgot to pass the farm bill in October and the extension that they passed in January they actually decided I don’t know if Vice President Biden was aware of this but he and his colleagues cut all training funding for beginning farmers. The beginning farmer and rancher development program now has zero funding. We are rebuilding local farmer to farmer networks on the ground. We have coalitions of young farmers that are forming all over the country.
Our Hudson Valley group that I am a part of, we get together to share a meal, put plastic on a greenhouse and we are now using our combined purchasing power to bring down the cost of animal feed. So more of the farmers in our group can offer chickens, eggs, pigs. It’s great. We can work together and solve a lot of these problems.
We are now taking this farmer to farmer model and we are applying it to technology. We helped to launch a project called Farm Hack, which is farmers, programmers, engineers coming together to develop open source tools to help independent farmers stay competitive. You know the National Young Farmers Coalition, we are getting a lot done. But there is so much more to do and we cannot do it alone.
You know if every single farmer in the United States joined the National Young Farmers Coalition, which by the way we hope they do, they are all invited, we would still have less than one half of one percent of the population behind us, which is very far from a super majority, right?
If we are going to rebuild American agriculture, provide a path of opportunity for people of modest means to become farmers in the United States and for us all to feel the benefits and experience the benefits that all those farmers caring for the land will bring, then we need your help. We need you to figure out how we can get everyone in this country to buy local, to buy locally grown food and have the opportunity to do that.
We need some of you to become farmers. Don’t know if you’re prepared for that. And we need all of you to put your kids on a career path that includes farming.
And lastly, we need you to join with us to tell Congress that if we invest in the next generation of farmers in the United States, we will all win. I hope that you will join us. We need you to join us.