Young Farmers Break The Bank Before They Get To The Field
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Let's return to a story we began on yesterday's program. It began with a number: 57. That, according to U.S. census data, is the average age of the American farmer. And the number is climbing. Which tells us who's farming now and also who's not. From member station KUNC, Luke Runyon reports on the younger generation of farmers and wannabe farmers and what they're all up against.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Young people still want to farm, just not in the same numbers as they used to. And a lot of them don't want to farm in conventional ways.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS)
RUNYON: Case in point, meet Eva Teague.
EVA TEAGUE: Do you want to take a walk around?
RUNYON: Those oinks are coming from the snouts of her 15 pigs, on a windy day at her small farm outside Longmont, Colorado.
TEAGUE: They've got their water, shelter, grass, shade, mud. Pretty much all they need.
RUNYON: Teague is a grad school dropout turned farmer, originally from the East Coast. Jaded with academia, she moved to Colorado and began working as a farm apprentice. She bought her first pigs a couple years ago.
TEAGUE: Didn't have that much cash, so I paid for feed with the credit card just to get going.
RUNYON: Right now her biggest challenge, like many other young farmers, is access to capital. Teague spends her days on the farm, and every evening working full-time as a waitress. She's had a hard time securing a loan to get her business off the ground, a common problem for the millennial generation of farmers, a group that largely eschews traditional big scale agriculture in favor of small farms.
TEAGUE: It's a very rare person who's not grown up on a farm who's going to go out and say I want to plant 100,000 acres of corn. I want to get a confinement hog barn with 300,000 pigs.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK)
RUNYON: But the millennial generation isn't exclusively made up of farmers who've jumped on the local food movement. About 40 miles north, 25-year-old Bo Bigler is dropping off feed to cattle at a feedlot devoted to research.
BO BIGLER: And then these steers...
RUNYON: Bigler graduated from Colorado State University this month with a Master's degree in beef management, which almost ensures a career working at large feedlots. Bigler says owning his own ranch is out of the question.
BIGLER: Just because of the price to buy into it. It's too much. The cost of land is unreal. I think the only way that somebody can get into it is if a ranch was handed down to them, unless they're, you know, millionaires to begin with.
RUNYON: That's another huge hurdle facing young people who want to get into agriculture - the high cost for land. A survey a couple years ago by the National Young Farmers Coalition showed access to land and capital to be the single biggest factors keeping young people from getting into farming or ranching.
KRAIG PEEL: The system is not working right now to allow them entrance into that job market.
RUNYON: Kraig Peel is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. He says within ranching the need to bring in young people has reached a tipping point, for both large and small operations. Sixty-four percent of the nation's cattle ranches are owned by someone older than 55. Given the economic situation, many of Peel's students have chosen to forgo the financial difficulties of running a ranch or farm and work instead for a large agribusiness company.
PEEL: There's no way they can pay the student loan, and pay a land payment and still have enough money left over to live on. So it's very frustrating for a lot of these students that would like to do that, but economically it just doesn't make sense and it's just not feasible and the banks won't loan them money in the first place.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS)
RUNYON: Back at Eva Teague's pig farm in Longmont, she's working on a multi-year business plan to try to add a few acres of vegetables to her farm, and some more pigs.
TEAGUE: I think a lot of young people want to work outside in sort of a farm camp fun experience. There are fewer people who would like to work really hard, like 60, 70 hours a week for not a lot of money, which is what working on a farm is.
RUNYON: That's a harsh reality many older farmers know all too well. And because crop prices remain high and farming remains lucrative for some, the incentive is to stay on the land, making it much more difficult for the younger generation to step up. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon.
GREENE: Luke's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agricultural issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.