Ag Policy Blog

Challenges Facing Young, First-Generation Farmers

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Young farmers expect policy changes to help them deal with issues such as access to land, affordable health care and student loan debt, according to the 2017 National Young Farmer Survey.

While not in every case, the survey highlights some issues impactingmainly smaller, first-generation younger farmers raising vegetables for direct sale through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmer markets or restaurants.

The survey collected data from 3,517 former, current and aspiring farmers under 40 years old and was done with the work of 94 organizations. According to the survey results, the top challenges facing younger farmers are:

-Access to land
-Student loan debt

-Affordable Health Insurance

Kathleen Merrigan, a former deputy Agriculture secretary and now executive director of Sustainability at George Washington University, worked with the National Young Farmers Coalition on the survey. Merrigan said she hoped policymakers will pay attention to the survey findings as they craft the next farm bill.

"If nothing is done to help transition young people into American agriculture, we will be importing all our food," Merrigan said.

The survey respondents offer a somewhat different view of young farmers than the traditional commodity producer. According to the results, 60% of the 3,517 respondents are women and 75% of respondent young farmers did not grow up on a farm. Seventy five percent describe their farm practices as "sustainable" and 63% described their practices as organic.

Among respondents, 72% also grow vegetables and 815 grow more two or more types of products. About 38% grow flowers, 35% raise poultry and 33% grow fruits and nuts. Another 25% have livestock on their operations. Just 16% of respondents grow field crops.

Also among respondents, 47% were farmer-owners, 15% were hired hands, 14% were farm managers, 95 were owners who also worked for other farmers as well, and 15% were "other." The average farm size was 276 acres, but the data was skewed by a few large farms. The median farm size was 19 acres and 67% of respondents farmed fewer than 50 acres.

Among those who have stopped farming -- about 15% of the survey -- they said "other" as the main reason to quitting, with many of those referencing "lack of profitability." But access to land impacted 20% of them and student loan debt affected 14% of them. A long list of reasons all came in with under 10% of responses.

For those aspiring to farm, a similar theme emerges. Access to land is preventing 30% from farming while dealing with student loan debt affects 15% of those respondents as well.

Looking at challenges accessing land, 61% said they simply can't afford farmland for sale while 54% said the cost of land to buy is higher than the value of what they can grow. Another 33% said they cannot find affordable rental ground while 275 cant' find land with affordable housing nearby.

Fifteen percent of respondents to the survey also cited the Affordable Care Act as the most help federal program with 61% of respondents citing the Affordable Care act as either very helpful or somewhat helpful.

About 46% use federal farm programs and 52% do not while 2% do not know. Most of the farm programs used were through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for high-tunnel assistance or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. About 18% used Farm Service Agency microloans and 17% were enrolled in commodity programs for crops or dairy.

Looking at challenges dealing with farm programs, 40% of respondents said the paperwork and applications were too burdensome while 30% were just unfamiliar with programs. Another 28% cited "my local USDA staff has been difficult to work with." Another 22% said they have been denied funding while another 22% said the USDA programs do not meet their needs.

The survey offers a list of recommendations when it comes to land access, such as increasing funding and priority for the NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The Young Farmers Coalition also calls for increasing loan limits for young and beginning farmers at FSA, as well as changing the Conservation Reserve Program and its transition incentives for younger farmers. In addressing the Tax Code, excluding farmland from capital-gains taxes when the ground is sold to a young, beginning, socially-disadvantaged or veteran farm would help loosen up some land currently not for sale.

Other efforts are needed to address student-loan forgiveness for farmers or structuring repayment efforts through USDA programs.

The full survey can be viewed at…

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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