It’s hardly new news that many family farms likely won’t be family farms after the current generation dies or retires.
For a long time now agriculture experts have been warning that fewer young people are signing on to run their parents’ farms, opting instead for college and careers. That’s in line with national and international urban living trends.
During the post-World War II years, many returning American veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college, and they flocked to raise their families in the newly created suburbs - not to the family farm.
A recent Michigan State University study found that just 38 percent of Michigan farmers planning to retire in 10 years would be passing their farms on to a single heir. That has certainly been the case in the Grand Traverse area, where cherry farmers have long worried who would take over the farm when they retired.
There has been a bit of a reversal in recent years as more young people have embraced the “eat local” mantra and have taken an interest in not just knowing where their food is coming from, but growing it.
An innovative program is now helping pair young people who want to get back to the land with places they can actually farm without having to own it first.
Like the residency programs that have helped train doctors for generations, the program would take people completing farmer internships or apprenticeships and offer them land owned by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy to farm.
Amanda Kik, co-director of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art & Natural Design, or ISLAND, one of the nonprofits starting the program, said it’s more than educational. It’s intended to provide “rational support to get that farm business off the ground,” she said.
The residency program is designed to help young people who want to become farmers but don’t have family land or a farming background learn how to manage a farm before buying land.
Residents may become eligible for a low-interest Department of Agriculture loan, though that requires at least three years of land management.
Michelle Ferrase, who heads the ISLAND board of directors and runs Birch Point Farm on land she rents, said the “No. 1 challenge facing incoming farmers is access to land.” It’s more difficult when that land is priced based on its developmental, not agricultural, value.
This is smart stuff, particularly for an area where lots of people are planting vineyards, launching wineries and breweries and foodies are looking for places that feature locally produced food.
In an era of more and more corporate mega-farms, the region needs food options; we won’t have them without the people to do the work.