When it comes to agriculture, the United States is at a critical crossroads.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, at a dairy expo in Wisconsin, said that small farms will likely not survive as the “big get bigger and small go out.” These comments came on the curtails of a devastating growing year for many farms as a result of a multitude of contributing factors.
But as corporate farm entities continue to swallow-up smaller commodity growers, concerns over climate change and destructive farming practices have simultaneously resulted in a burgeoning demand for small, local and sustainable agriculture. As the farming population continues to age, there is an underswell of eager, young farmers ready to get on the land — signaling a potential paradigm shift in land access and management.
Many factors made this a unique growing season. This spring we saw record flooding in the north-central U.S. Much of lower Michigan did not get crops planted until late June, if at all. As a result, our Michigan USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services promised up to $3.9 million dollars in financial aid to farmers across the state to plant cover crops to protect their soil from erosion and weeds for the remainder of the year.
Unfortunately, a wet spring wasn’t the only thing that plagued farmers. In other parts of the country, farmers grappled with extreme drought, wildfires consumed orchards and fields, and extreme pest and disease pressure ran rampant. Additionally, the trade war with China has resulted in many agriculture sectors scrambling to find end markets for their products. Locally, our cherry farmers have been up against an international trade war on cheap cherry imports, extreme pest pressure from the invasive Spotted-Wing Drosophila (SWD), and issues with getting enough reliable labor to get the work done.
If the inherent issues of climate change and profitability in the marketplace were not problematic enough, we have a crisis of farmland succession.
According to the USDA, the average age of a farmer is 58 years old. It is estimated that 70 percent of farmland will change hands in the next 20 years. In northern Michigan alone, 83,000 acres will potentially change hands in the next 10 years, according to the Food & Farming Network.
It is no secret that northwest Lower Michigan is a popular tourist destination, due in part to our beautiful landscapes and agriculturally productive countryside.
That fact alone is a double-edge sword.
Couple the current agricultural woes with development pressure, and families are starting to need to make some hard decisions about the future use of the land they have loved and tended. For some, it’s going the path of farmland preservation, but others are finding it increasingly necessary to parcel off their land for non-agricultural development.
There’s good news in all of this: Young people want to farm and there’s land that needs to be farmed.
But most beginning and aspiring farmers are first-generation farmers who didn’t grow up on a farm. As a result, many barriers face aspiring farmers in their efforts to begin growing food.
One of the big issues is finding start-up capital to access the land, equipment and infrastructure needed to be successful. New agri-business ventures often are seen as “high-risk” to lenders and loans are rarely given out. Some other common issues are: the learning curve that comes with not having an extensive farming background, not having a well-established market for products, and not having the necessary business acumen and training needed to run a profitable farm.
In the coming years, our challenge as a community will be how to preserve our vibrant, agricultural heritage by nurturing and supporting a new generation of resilient farmers.
To successfully transition farmland in Northern Michigan will require creative solutions that go beyond the traditional constructs of farm ownership and operation.
As consumer demand for regenerative and sustainable farming practices increase, we have a unique opportunity to transform our region into a national model for localized food production, access, and security.
Lastly, by fostering new and existing initiatives to provide the resources and tools aspiring farmers need, we can help keep farms in production, our food systems localized, and our soils fertile.