MOSES is the largest organic farming conference in the country. This weekend there were many many farmers, young and old, etc etc attending workshops about organic production, from vegetables to grains to livestock, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I didn’t want to go to MOSES this weekend—I’m very relieved I didn’t go, actually, for a number of reasons. Some of which are practical:
First, we’re lambing, so leaving the farm even for a few errands is sometimes a stretch. Our lives are in the barn right now.
Second, I personally don’t do very well at conferences. Introvert, emotional, interacting with hundreds of people. Not a great combination.
But the third reason is something that kind of bugs me about myself—an assumption I have about who goes to things like MOSES. Because while a lot of people attending MOSES are actually farmers, there are a lot of non-farmers, aspiring, or beginning farmers too. People growing on a single empty lot in a city, or on a sixteenth of an acre of their grandparents land, or grow microgreens hydroponically in a trailer. And because they aren’t doing what I’m doing—not to the scale of the farm I’m a part of—the snarky, judgmental part of my brain wants to say they aren’t farming. Because we maybe don’t have a lot to share with each other, production-wise, I want to write them off, I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t have an idea of what someone growing smaller than me can offer me. And I want to write them off because I don’t think their experiences count under the category of farming. And it’s stupid, because I know there are farmers that would do that exact same thing to someone like me—who call vegetable farms gardens, and would scoff at our flock of 30 ewes (36, but who’s counting (just kidding, I’m definitely counting, we’re lambing, don’t you remember)).
And I think this thing I struggle with, with categorizing other producers in a way that excludes them from *what is farming*, is exactly the same thing that makes me sometimes (often) feel like I am not a farmer. The most common barriers to farming are things that I don’t have a straight-forward relationship to either, so why am I judging these other aspiring or beginning farmers? Let me lay a couple out for you.
It is safe to say that land access barriers mark the number one obstacle to young farmers actually farming. In Iowa alone, farmland is over three times more expensive than it was in 1990, even after adjusting for inflation (Iowa State Farmland Values Survey). When you combine that with the fact that 97% of Iowa is privately owned, and 92% is farmland, and the average age of the Iowa farmer is 57 years old, you can see why it is hard to access farmland in Iowa (State Data Center). Land is too expensive, owned by old white men, and privately owned/ not for sale.
(A quick note to acknowledge that it is pretty fucked up that we even talk about land in this way—that it is very colonial in the first place to approach land from an ownership perspective, and that all land in America was stolen from indigenous peoples.)
Not only that, but not all land is the same, according to county and state zoning laws. If you have land that is not zoned ag, there are a multitude of different restrictions on the type of business and farm you are allowed to run, and higher taxes to pay on residential or commercial property. Not only that, but in my county, there is an inane law stating that in order to be zoned agricultural land, one must have a property that is 40 acres or more. Based on the average price of an acre of farmland in 2017, 40 acres in Johnson County would cost $293,040, an amount that is inaccessible for beginning farmers.
My personal relationship to farmland is a pretty good situation, all things considered. My sister purchased a farm from a woman we’ve known our whole lives, and while I haven’t yet decided how I want to permanently be involved, I’m working for and with her on the vegetable CSA and our livestock operation. My own troubles with this barrier are trivial—it is just me, making a fuss about calling myself a farmer without my own farm. But that’s pretty dumb.
Related to the fact that farmland is so expensive is the fact that start-up costs for a new farmer are monumental. Depending on what enterprise you start with, after you find access to land, and depending on the situation on that property, you not only have to buy seed stock, but you probably need to buy tractors, tractor attachments, fencing, feed, livestock, etc, and each one of those things I just named costs a buttload of money. Even cows. Cows are fucking expensive.
This is why family farms were a thing. Because it is almost impossible to start from the ground up, passing functional operations on through the family was one of the only ways to make ends meet. But now that even that often leads to debt and ends not meeting, rural farmkids are leaving. They have been leaving, and it’s still true. There are no jobs here besides the struggle of farming, so kids of farmers move to cities for other kinds of work. For a “better life.”
Capital always has been and probably always will be a huge obstacle to new farmers. It’s a big topic and there are new and creative ways farmers are attacking it, from kickstarters to grant writing. For the record, I don’t think it is realistic or a good example to fund your farm off of grants and then sell what you are doing as economically sustainable farming. Just for the record. But anyway. Capital is a big problem. My sister was able to purchase the farm with a combination of money our family had and loans. Not everyone has that privilege, and even with that privilege it was logistically difficult to buy the farm. And the farm came with the infrastructure to run a CSA and keep sheep on pastures– many of the other starting costs were incorporated into the sale of the farm.
This one is a little subjective, and I think one I struggle with a lot. There’s no education or training requirement to start farming, if you have access to land and capital. So then what amount of experience qualifies you to begin farming? There are ag degrees at many colleges, but what do those actually prepare you for? On graduation day, can you go out and just start farming successfully, from land management to bookkeeping? Probably not. How many years do you need to work on someone else’s farm before you should strike out on your own? What if you have worked only for short amounts of time on many farms? Do you have enough relevant experience with the day-to-day management, year in and year out, to do it by yourself?
Should anyone be farming by themselves?
Once you overcome all these massive obstacles to becoming a farmer, you still have to have the guts and wear-with-all to say: “Yeah. Fuck yeah, I still want to do this. I’m going to farm because I like growing things more than money, personal time, or any other priority I might have. And I have the confidence to do so, because I know I’m a badass and can make it work.” (And while I am privileged to know so many awesome badass women farmers, I’m going to go ahead and say that this type of confidence comes more easily for men, who have been socialized to have confidence. Yay for them!!!)
I have confidence issues every damn day. From how I ask my sister whether we should go check on the animals to my hesitation to even write this article, I’m constantly asking myself whether I’m good enough. Whether I qualify. If my experience gives me the authority to say anything on the subject. Whether I could do this by myself if I wanted to, or if I wanted to start my own enterprise.
All of these barriers and definitions of what is farming are keeping people from working together. Also these are not the only barriers to farming– there are many many different obstacles besides the ones I mentioned. We all need to get over ourselves and our own ideas of what can constitute a farmer Pretty Damn Fast. Because we have a crisis on our hands, a crisis of aging farmers and changing climates. Everyone needs to adapt their expectations, and stop perpetuating stereotypes that you have to have land, capital, experience, and maybe be a white man to be a farmer. Because the goddamn answer to this crisis is that everyone should become a farmer.
Of the people I know from college, I literally think I know two others besides me that are farming. Of my high school classmates (from RURAL IOWA), there are even less. There are a lot of jobs to do in this world, I know, but I think the stigma of what farming means and who should do it, and then the logistical impossibilities on top of that, are stopping a lot of people who would be great farmers from farming. There are so many different ways to grow food, and so many types of food to grow. The options would be endless, if it wasn’t so hard to start farming.
Everyone who attended MOSES this weekend should be a farmer. Everyone who owns farmland should either be farming or rent to their land to a young farmer. Or both. Everyone who has capital or could help young farmers access capital should be doing all they can to get young people on the land before all the old knowledge goddamn dies with the old generation. Everyone should have relationships with farmers, even if they live in big cities, and should put their money where their mouth is. Everyone should be a farmer.