Agriculture is a family. It's a common saying. Many of today's farm and ranch operators have generations of agrarians behind them. They learned by just growing up on a farm and watching cattle worked or fields planted. It does something to a person's DNA.
But, what if you are not part of the family of agriculture? What if you don't have those childhood memories or maybe the advantage of land passed down through the generations to give you a start? First-generation farmers are learning to build their own kind of family. Many of them are getting a little help from a group that just hit its 10-year mark, the National Young Farmers Coalition, born in 2010.
The coalition goes back to first-generation farmer Lindsey Lusher Shute, who farms with her husband, Benjamin, in New York's Hudson Valley. They believed young farmers and ranchers needed a coordinated voice in Washington, D.C. Today, the coalition has more than 200,000 supporters across the country, with 46 farmer-led chapters in 27 states.
Erin Foster West coordinates the coalition's western program. Hers is a region with unique challenges, where knowing how to farm or ranch is equally as important as learning how to advocate for policy. Water issues are especially key to building a future that will meet the needs of both those producing food and consumers who depend on it.
"At its most basic, we are bringing groups of young farmers and ranchers together so they can support one another as they start a business. They help each other with finding markets and being profitable," Foster West explains. "We've recently expanded our water training program to address those special issues we have here in the West. The challenges you face in agriculture out here are really different from those in what we think of as traditional farming areas."
In Colorado, the coalition offers a Young Farmer Water Fellowship where 10 people go through a six-month program. Through the program, they work in the local community to develop a deep understanding of water issues people who live there face. Leadership training is a key part of this work. At the end of the program, participants often run for a seat on their local water boards, which are critical because they are tasked with developing statewide water plans.
"If you look at water boards, they are not always the most diverse groups," Foster West says. "We are trying to get some new voices on these boards. It's so important to make sure that the next generation of farmers and ranchers truly understand water issues and climate change, and that they are represented. We need to be thinking about where they will be 20, 30, even 40 years down the road. This helps them have a say in that future."
Andy Breiter is one of those coalition leaders in the making. He joined the group in 2017 after he attended his first meeting. He'd had some experience working on ranches but had no farming background -- no agrarians in his past, as he says.
A new cattle operator, Breiter started an operation in Boulder County, Colorado, with 78 acres and some custom-grazing work. He's proud to have both.
"The contract grazing is helping me keep my capital costs down," he says. "Right now, my biggest challenge is finding land so I can grow the business. The property I'm leasing doesn't have the acreage I need, but I was lucky because it does have the infrastructure I need. There is office space, a shop for equipment, facilities to handle animals. All of that is really important for me to be able to move forward. I just need more ground."
Breiter's land search is one of the most common issues first-generation farmers face, Foster West explains.
She notes having secure land tenure and the ability to borrow money to grow are probably the two biggest issues for those new to agriculture.
"The land piece is especially critical. It's so expensive and hard to buy land," she says, adding that student loan debt is increasingly an issue to getting started for many who dream of their own farms.
"A lot of our young, first-generation farmers and ranchers come to us with a high level of student loan debt, and to be honest, that makes it very hard for them to take on additional debt for land, equipment, cattle, whatever it is they need to get started."
One of the goals of the coalition is to work toward developing workable public programs for student loan forgiveness for farmers and ranchers. Foster West believes this group of new agrarians is equally as important to rural areas as are doctors or veterinarians, who already have access to such programs.
"Farmers have to be jacks-of-all-trades," she says. "They don't just have to know agronomy or animal husbandry, but business planning and marketing. They have to be able to fix equipment, tend to sick animals and advocate for farming. We believe student loan forgiveness in rural areas for farmers and ranchers would be in the public good. They grow our food and our fiber, often at very low wages. They aren't getting rich doing this -- they do it for the public good."
Breiter sees all those issues firsthand. None of them dull his optimism. He believes he's got a good plan, and the timing for success is better than most people would think in a pandemic-based economy.
Although Breiter is custom-grazing now, what he sees in his future is a grass-fed, consumer-direct business. He's not looking to start a typical cow/calf operation. In what might be called a nonconformist plan, he wants to buy cull cows, run them from March or April through the fall, then sell them as grass-fed beef direct to local buyers.
"When you consider cull cows, you have animals that have fully depreciated. They make good beef, and you can take them from outside the feedlot market, put some weight on them and then do direct sales. If I can take cull cows and do that, I think I might have a successful business," Breiter says.
A major challenge to Breiter's business model today is a lack of slaughter space in his area. It's a common complaint this year, as more cattle producers are selling product direct. In Breiter's case, he says access is strained to the point where processing dates are currently one to two years out.
While that might seem like bad timing to some, Breiter sees it as just the opposite. "Yes, there are absolutely some challenges with COVID-19, but if you can succeed with these challenges, I don't think you can miss. It's because of the pandemic that so many more people are interested in buying local products, and I believe that will only increase as relationships between buyers and sellers build. So, yes, there are challenges, but innovation and opportunities are going to come out of this."
Water availability to those in agriculture is an issue that won't be going away anytime soon. Through his membership in the coalition, Breiter is part of a group in his area participating in the Young Farmer Water Fellowship program. He says he's learned a lot about the issues in this arid part of the country.
"The quantity of water available to farmers and to cities is a huge concern," he notes. "We've seen a lot of overallotment of water use on what we call the 'front range,' which is cities like Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins. Those cities are increasing the amount of water they own by purchasing water rights from agricultural landowners. We call those 'buy-and-dry' policies."
Breiter says there are a lot of multistakeholder solutions being considered in regions like his, where water is key to the survival of farms. He stresses it's important, however, that any solutions are long-lasting and not just temporary fixes.
"We have to find ways to affect positive changes that will help all farmers in the region, whether they are new to agriculture or not," he explains.
Breiter says part of the reason he is working so hard to be involved and to be part of the solution for the future of agriculture is simply a love of the land and all that comes with it.
"I've been really blessed with the life my parents gave me," the Illinois native says. "I want to give that back to my community here by working with the coalition and helping others succeed, as well. We all have to be that community of support for one another. If you haven't farmed, it's hard to explain what that is really like.
"These cows, you can hear them mooing while we're talking, they have to be fed every day. Other farmers understand this. These cows don't care what the weather is or whether it's a holiday. I am responsible for them. It's a level of commitment you don't get until you've lived it. And, it's really a life worth living. It means something every day I am fortunate enough to be here."
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