Organic Farmer with young Plants

I am a first-generation farmer in Armagh, Pennsylvania, and a Land Advocacy Fellow with the National Young Farmers Coalition. I am also a beginning farmer, now two years into operating John-Paul’s Farm alongside my husband, where we primarily produce vegetables and eggs and are learning to produce small grains, hay and chicken.

Armagh is in the southern section of Indiana County, near Cambria County. This region is connected through shared heritage, pastimes, agriculture and coal mining.

Agricultural pride is prevalent in our communities, where there are a combined 1,508 producers and 227,629 acres in farming, as recorded in the 2017 USDA County Profiles. From several-hundred-acre dairy operations, to market farmers, to backyard gardeners who preserve their harvests, to farm market patrons, 4-H participants, and numerous agricultural-centered fairs and festivals, there is meaningful engagement in agriculture in Indiana and Cambria counties.

My knowledge of farming didn’t come from my parents, or even my grandparents, but I was exposed to farming in other ways. During high school I milked cows and processed maple syrup. Every summer I got a glimpse of haying and cattle ranching. During college, I spent a season as a farmhand on a community supported agriculture-based organic family farm that served more than 1,000 members. Now, I reside on my spouse’s family farm, which has hardly been farmed in the past four decades.

Becoming a farmer in a farming community was and is intimidating for me. “Will people think I’m a joke?” I’ve thought. So far, the answer has been, “No, absolutely not.”

My efforts have been met with enthusiasm and support, especially from elder farmers. The enthusiasm comes with admiration for my hard labor, having expanded our farming activities in two years of business to become the largest organically grown producer at our local farmers market, reinvigorating fallow farmland along the way. I often hear that “it’s great to see young people doing this work,” followed by, “young people don’t want to do this anymore.”

Connecting with agricultural elders has been a joy — they’ve provided me with encouragement and know-how. Our shared love of farming has brought us together, yet I find a disconnect when it comes to being young and farming.

Young Farmers Need Land

The notion that “young people don’t want to farm” is not the truth of our time. I am part of the next generation of young farmers, but we need the help of the older generation and elected officials to be successful. We face many challenges — affordable, secure land access being number one for many of us.

Land access — including entry to farming and continued stability while farming — is a major problem for young farmers, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) farmers without family land to inherit. According to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey, 59% of young farmers and 65% of BIPOC farmers reported finding affordable land to buy as very or extremely challenging.

I’m not a farmer because I’m an especially hard-working woman, as compliments imply, or because I have a greater desire to do so than any other person in their early 30s with an interest in agriculture. I’m able to be a farmer because of my proximity to land through family.

I became a Land Advocacy Fellow with Young Farmers to assert the need for equitable land policy in the 2023 Farm Bill from my place of privilege as a white farmer, in a majority white community, with stable land access.

The most significant hurdles I’ve had to overcome involved a rapidly dying parent and farm owner with no will, no transition plan, and debt. While this is an issue that many other adult children of parents will face if not addressed, it is not the most significant issue when it comes to land transition. My experience with land transition has been a fortunate one, having a personal history with the farm property, personal startup funds, and the ability to fit into the local culture as needed. I have generally felt safe and welcome as a young white woman in this region, despite some occasional surprise when I assert that I am a farmer and work outside all day. The barriers in this white, rural area have automatically been lower for me, while they are higher for people of other identities — queer, Black, Indigenous, for example — due in great part to a history of forced migrations and restrictions on land ownership.

I want farmers approaching retirement to know that there is an abundance of young people who, like me, want to farm, but they don’t have the resources and land access that I’ve had.

Please don’t mistake my privilege for a work ethic. Instead, recognize that we are at a pivotal moment in agriculture, where we have the opportunity to make farming accessible to a younger, more diverse, generation.

Farmers are aging across Pennsylvania and the country. In Indiana and Cambria counties combined, over 60% of farmers are age 55 and older, while over 30% are age 65 and older, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture.

In my conversations with farmers who are looking toward retirement, I have heard uncertainty and uneasiness — “I don’t know what’s going to happen to my farm.”

We, as a community, are at risk of losing agricultural land to development, or even larger corporate farming operations that aren’t invested in the people of Indiana or Cambria counties like we are. We are at risk of losing our family farms.

Families have lost land for centuries in our region. Indigenous people were forced to move from this land, hill people were pushed out so industry could extract resources from the earth, and families today face difficult economic circumstances that make it more appealing to sell their land to the highest bidder than continue farming it. When retirement comes and it’s time to sell the family farm, the highest bidder is rarely a young farmer. Young people do not have access to capital like developers or energy producers do.

Saving the family farm doesn’t have to mean keeping the farm in the family. Perhaps members of your family have moved away or found other career paths, and that is OK. Saving the family farm can mean ensuring another family can continue tending to the land, or transitioning your farm to a land trust that is invested in agricultural preservation.

Steps Forward

There are many options, but we need to ensure there is supportive policy in the 2023 Farm Bill to ensure the land access programs, including transition planning, are available, and that young farmers have the access to capital they need.

I’m turning to established farmers to utilize their connections with the Farm Service Agency, the farming community and local and federal policymakers to support the next generation. Let’s advocate for policies that will help young farmers compete in the real estate market for land, and help retiring farmers create a transition plan for their farms that benefits both current landowners and future farmers.

The National Young Farmers Coalition “One Million Acres for The Future” campaign calls for:

• A $2.5 billion investment in land access and transition programs in the 2023 Farm Bill.

• Affordable federal sources of financing designed to meet farmers’ needs and help them compete in a fierce real estate market often driven by non-farmer buyers and investors.

• Support and incentives for farm transition by investing in mediation and technical assistance to support farmers at the moment of transition.

• To prevent land loss in communities of color, particularly at the time of farm transition. Specifically, we need to continue investing in the Heirs’ Property Relending Program.

• To invest in data collection, reporting, and research on farmland tenure, ownership and transition.

• Invest in a dedicated source of multi-year funding for technical service providers supporting farmers seeking land access and landowners transitioning out of farm ownership — prioritizing funding for state mediation programs that focus on outreach to under-served farmers and heirs’ property landowners.

I need not be the youngest farmer at my local farmers market, and we shouldn’t continue to wonder about the fate of our local farmland when there are people eager to enter this profession. Let’s work across generations to secure the agrarian future of our region.

Jane Kaminski is a farmer and co-owner/operator of John-Paul’s Farm in East Wheatfield Township, Indiana County, Pennsylvania.

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