Perspective: Structural Issues in Farming for Young Farmers

In the Perspectives guest blog series, Farm Foundation invites participants from among the varied Farm Foundation programs to share their unique viewpoint on a topic relevant to a Farm Foundation focus area. On February 28, 2024, Farm Foundation sponsored a roundtable discussion on “The Challenges of Young Farmers in the 21st Century,” held at the historic Hôtel de Talleyrand in Paris, France, on the margins of the annual Salon International de l’Agriculture. The event was organized by the U.S. Embassy in Paris to encourage discussion as farmer protests are spreading across Europe and as policy makers in France, Germany, and the United States are eager support young farmers. Dr. Becca B.R. Jablonski, co-director of the Food Systems Institute and associate professor and food systems extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University, spoke at the event. Below is an excerpt of her contribution to the dialogue.

There is an undeniable truth that structural challenges impede the viability of young farmers. Chief among these challenges are consolidation and the benefits of economies of scale – often difficult for farmers just starting out; those not part of multigeneration operations. However, these challenges are not insurmountable, and there are concrete steps that governments can take to meaningfully support and engage young operators. Here I outline three ingredients that I believe are critical to supporting young farmers.

Tools that Support Risk Management: At a recent focus group I led with dry-bean growers in New York, there was a stark contrast between the older and young farmers in the room. The older farmers repeatedly told the researchers that they had been farming a certain way for decades and were not interested in changing anything. The young farmers reiterated that they have to take risks or the farm will not survive. Accordingly, in my remarks, I emphasized the need to equip young farmers with tools to reduce uncertainty. These tools are associated with positive survival outcomes for beginning farmers, including but not limited to insurance, government payments, diversified markets (including local and regional food markets), and opportunities to add value to raw products. Ensuring young farmers have access to and are aware of these opportunities is critical to building a resilient foundation for young farmers.

Comprehensive Well-Being of Young Farmers and Their Families: Recognizing that farming is not just an individual pursuit but often a family endeavor, it is imperative to broaden our focus. Young farmers and their families require access to essential services such as childcare and healthcare, including mental health services. Spouses of farmers require off-farm jobs and access to the internet. These vital resources—including those that are of high quality—are particularly challenging to find in rural areas, necessitating innovative solutions and government intervention.

Increasing Urban Exposure and Understanding: To ensure sustainable progress, we must actively work towards enhancing urban exposure to agricultural and rural issues. The majority of people worldwide live in urban areas, are increasingly disconnected from farming, and they wield significant power. Urban stakeholders and city governments are increasingly making decisions that can have tangible effects on young farmers. Accordingly, finding opportunities to build bridges and share understanding across urban and rural stakeholders is key to supporting young farmers; increasing polarization will hurt the next generation of young farmers.

The challenges faced by young farmers in the 21st century are substantial, but so too are the opportunities to support the next generation. By providing risk management tools and strategies, recognizing the needs of farm families and rural communities, and fostering urban-rural understanding, we can cultivate a landscape where young farmers thrive, contribute to sustainable agriculture, and shape the future of our global food supply. The dialogue initiated in Paris serves as a catalyst for continued collaboration and action in support of the next generation of agricultural leaders. I am grateful to have been included in this important event.

In addition to Dr. Jablonski, other event participants included included Sven Schulze, Minister of Economy Saxony-Anhalt; Martin Dippe, Farmer’s Union Saxony-Anhalt; Marius Denecke, Young Farmers Saxony-Anhalt; Laurent Buisson, University of Paris AgroParisTech; Farm Foundation Round Table Fellow Garth Boyd, the Context Network; Farm Foundation Honorary Life Fellow Gary Baise, the Heartland Institute; Ann Baise, Illinois Agriculture Leadership Foundation; and Paul Kramme, a 16-year old aspiring farmer, among many others.

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