Jason Foscolo’s November 6 webinar, “Food Law Activism: Legal Models for Sustainable Businesses,” launched Part II of the Frontiers in Food and Agriculture webinar series. Part II of the series focuses on food and agriculture law—often a complex and bewildering topic for producers across the country. The principal attorney at the Food Law Firm in New York, Foscolo works with local farmers and producers committed to sustainability, offering legal guidance on how to remain competitive in the food industry in the long term. His work is especially important as both the farming demographic and modes of agricultural production shift, but must still work within the same legal apparatus.
Even as conventional family farms in the Intermountain West, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat, and as the percentage of residents in the region involved in agriculture have declined to less than 2 percent, recent shifts in the national agricultural community may indicate that trend is changing. Utah counties have lost 434,000 acres of farmland between 1974 and 2007 and yet smaller urban farms have increased by 20 percent during the same period. This change has prompted some farmers to consider diversifying and becoming involved with organic farming or even growing landscaping plants.
Median farm household income, according to a USDA study, was expected to decrease by 2.5 percent in 2013. Furthermore, many farms (defined broadly) continued to remain unprofitable nationwide even in the best of years, painting what is, perhaps, a less-than-reassuring entré into the scene for beginning farmers. Although the career path may not promise dividends in the short term, for many families and individuals, farming is an essential part of their family history, or it may simply represent a new way of living in modern society. Whatever the draw is, a new, and decidedly young, approach to farming is emerging.
The agriculture business is dominated by an aging population (the average farmer age increased from 47.6 to 57.1 from 2003-2007), unable to pass their farms onto their daughters or sons. Since 1982 the percentage of new farmers who have managed their land for ten years or less has steadily declined, according to the 2007 Agricultural Census. However, the faces of America’s farmers may slowly be changing. The passing of lands, so to speak, is nothing to overlook as less than 10 percent of U.S. farmers have transition plans for their lands or businesses and the eventual passing of these properties will represent the transfer of an enormous amount of real estate. Into whose hands will these lands fall?
A 2011 National Young Farmers Coalition Survey found that not only do many young people want to farm, they also want to farm in unconventional ways. The biggest barriers to their entry, predictably, are access to land and capital. As a recent NPR feature highlights, young, aspiring farmers aren’t necessarily flocking to the farm out of any romanticized notion of a bucolic lifestyle, but out of a genuine desire to create viable small farming and ranching business models that advance new agricultural techniques. Their efforts, though, are beset by high land prices and student loan debt.
In other words, “(t)oday’s new farmers aren’t just white hipsters;” rather, they are individuals and couples in their 20s, 30s and 40s from widely varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds who are ready to buy farmland, build businesses or cooperatives, and continue old family traditions, or create new ones. This upwelling of more-than-a-passing interest is reflected in the emergence of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and the Young Farmer’s Conference, both of which give new farmers venues through which they can voice ideas, gather legal and business resources, and build collective momentum. New publications like the Modern Farmer Magazine, which features farmers across the country and offers news on a wide variety of daily farming topics, attempt to facilitate this burgeoning conversation amongst new and old practitioners. Although the next frontier for America’s food movement remains to be seen, online publications such as Young Farmers Unite, which offers information on topics such as agroecology, loan equity, and healthcare issues, indicate that for many incoming farmers, collaboration, education, innovation, creativity and empowerment are central tenets of their endeavors.
A change in demographics alone may have a variety of implications for how farming in the US looks in the twenty-first century. It may mean more non-conventional farming operations seeking legal support from attorneys like Foscolo as they implement new business models, develop alternative farming practices, and establish new regional markets for their goods.
A recording Jason Foscolo's webinar is available here: http://vimeo.com/79785843.
Resources For New Farmers
National Young Farmers’ Coalition: http://www.youngfarmers.org/
This organization works to support young farmers and offers news and a wide variety of resources on policy, food safety, the Farm Bill, and USDA farming programs. It also features a database for training and educational opportunities nationwide.
Report: “Building a Future with Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help them Succeed,”National Young Farmers’ Coalition, November 2011
Young Farmers Conference: http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/articles/2012-young-farmers-conference-1.html
The New York-based Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, an organization dedicated to creating sustainable food systems through education and training, holds the annual Young Farmers Conference to offer workshops, business courses, and demonstrations for beginning farmers. The Center’s websiteis also a valuable source of regional farming resources as well.
This non-profit organization offers an online network of support for beginning farmers by producing “avant-garde programming, video, audio, web content, publications, events, and art projects” that bring new and innovative resources to the fore. The Greenhorns produces the 2013New Farmers Almanac, which offers essays on agrarian philosophy with the intent of shaping and implementing an alternative food system or, in their words, to “reclaim a landscape dominated by monoculture.”
The National Young Farmer Association: http://www.nyfea.org/what-we-do.html
NYFEA is a leadership development and community service organization based in Montgomery, AL and focuses on educating beginning/young farmers and agribusiness professionals through workshops, conferences, and seminars.
The Land Stewardship Project: http://landstewardshipproject.org/morefarmers/fbresources
The Land Stewardship Project is a Minnesota-based organization that provides information and workshops for farmers on how to map out business plans and learning strategies. If offers a Farm Beginnings Course as well as a Farmer Network of more than 130 farms of widely varying enterprises.
Beginning Farmers: An Online Resource for Farmers, Researchers, and Policy Makers: http://www.beginningfarmers.org/finding-land-to-farm/
This website offers a clearing house of resources on finding land to farm across the country with links to programs such as LandLink, Lands of America, LoopNet, and Land and Farm.
Farm Aid-Beginning Farmer Resource Guide: http://www.farmaid.org/site/c.qlI5IhNVJsE/b.8064555/k.95D2/Beginning_Farmers.htm
Farm Aid lists a wide variety of resources for individuals to get started, and includes listings on internships, and apprenticeships nationwide. It also provides the Farm Start-Up Resource Guide, which outlines aspects such as creating a business plan, financing, and finding land.
The Center for Rural Affairs: http://www.cfra.org/resources/beginning_farmer
The Center is a Nebraska-based organization focused on supporting rural communities and farms. Like other regional farming sites it lists resources for financing, connecting new farmers with retiring landowners, and business strategy.
US Farm Lease : http://www.usfarmlease.com/
US Farm Lease provides a venue for landowners to be connected with operators. The website facilitates this process with a national database and map of all available listings, as well as educational tools, newsletters, and Farm Bill updates.
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/
This component of the USDA National Agricultural Library collects information and resources regarding sustainable food systems.
Beginning New Farmers: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/farms-and-community/beginningnew-farmers
Recognizing the aging farming population in the US this USDA online source looks to enable the transition of the farm economy to new hands with programs such as Start2Farm.
Farm Loan Programs-Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loans: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/webapp?area=home&subject=fmlp&topic=bfl
The USDA Farm Service Agency gathers information for new farmers on initiating and navigating the loan application process.
Ag Link is a resource for incoming Iowa farmers to find land and financial support and for retiring farmers who wish to preserve their farm business but do not have anyone to continue the enterprise.
Connecticut FarmLink: http://www.farmlink.uconn.edu/
The FarmLink program helps family farms prepare for a transition in ownership to facilitate their continued operation. The program also helps new farmers create business plans, and become familiar with local regulations.
Food Law Resources
The National Agricultural Law Center: http://nationalaglawcenter.org/
The Center is the “only agricultural law research and information facility that is independent, national in scope, and directly connected to the national agricultural information network.” It covers many aspects of food and agricultural law and allows users to research by topics such as agricultural leases, corporate farming laws, crop insurance, or national organic programs. The Center publishes research articles on a wide range of topics and assembled an Ag Law Bibliography and Glossary.
The Association of American Law Schools: https://memberaccess.aals.org/eWeb/dynamicpage.aspx?webcode=ChpDetail&chp_cst_key=9744d7fd-4898-415c-8c15-4740cc8f204e
The AALS website may not be a particularly useful source of information regarding legal issues, aside from providing potential points of contact. However, the blog “Agricultural Law,”the official blog of the AALS’ section on Agricultural and Food Law may provide relevant and up-to-date information or discussion on legal aspects of farming.
American Agricultural Law Association: http://aglaw-assn.org/
The AALA provides resources on various topics such as agricultural law, animal rights, cooperatives, farm policy, land use regulation, and property rights, along with bibliographies, and seminar and conference listings. AALA also maintains the “Ag & Food Law Blog,” with the National Agricultural Law Center, a source of nation-wide news.
Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network: http://www.nichemeatprocessing.org/
NMPAN helps connect small meat processors with each other and support their network with access to business and policy resources. The organization also offers particular sets of tools for individuals new to the industry.
Avana Andrade is a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.