Lindsey Shute and the Obstacles Young Farmers Face Today
Lindsey Lusher Shute is the executive director and co-founder of the National Young Famer’s Coalition (NYFC) where she has grown the organization from a group of a few volunteer farmers, to a nationwide network with 39 chapters in 27 states and a grassroots base of over 120,000. Lindsey regularly speaks at conferences and to national media on farm issues, and was recognized as a “Champion of Change” by President Barack Obama, in addition to receiving the Glynwood “Harvest Award”, being named among “ 20 Food Leaders Under 40” by Food Tank, and honored as an “American Food Hero” in Eating Well Magazine. She and her husband own and operate Hearty Roots farm in the Hudson Valley of New York.
“The issue of land access is really one of the founding challenges of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition,” says Lindsey, sharing that she and her husband started their journey in farming on rented land because they could not afford to purchase a farm of their own. But many young farmers discover that renting land comes a cost: they may be forced to leave it. “The loss of land is incredibly difficult,” says Lindsey explaining that although it’s a nuisance, you can move a tractor, but “what you can’t move is the love that you’ve put into that land, that soil, where the wet spots are and where the slope is—the knowledge you have of that land, that’s something that you have to start from scratch at another property.”
According to data collected by the National Young Farmers Coalition, in 2011 the two biggest challenges young farmers faced, in order, were access to capital and access to land. In 2017 when the same surveys were taken, access to capital had shifted down the list, but access to land became the #1 challenge facing beginning farmers across the country.
NYFC was created as a platform for young, progressive farmers to have a meaningful influence on the structural obstacles in the way of their success. Lindsey, at its helm, says that in order for young farmers to secure a viable future for agriculture the next thing that must be addressed in agriculture legislation is land access.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Lindsey Shute
Air Date: March 12, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and today we are talking with Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition. Welcome, Lindsey!
LINDSEY SHUTE: Thanks! Thanks for having me, Anne.
AOC: Great to have you on the show. So, Lindsey, you co-founded this organization which has become sort of the voice of the young farmers in our country, the Young Farmers Coalition, in a time when farming has dwindled to a smaller number of farmers, in a time when it’s become harder and harder than ever to start farming. Tell us what prompted you to start this organization.
LS: Well, in 2009, or thereabouts, I was sitting around a farmhouse kitchen table with my husband, who’s a full-time farmer, Ben Shute, and Severine Fleming, who is the founder of the Greenhorns. And I was running a flower farm. Ben and I had also been running a vegetable operation, Hearty Roots Community Farm, which is our farm which is still in operation. And Severine was running a farm and renting and at that time. And all of us were talking about just the tremendous challenges that we were facing on our own farms in the Hudson Valley in New York State, which is where the coalition is based, about 100 miles north of New York City. Ben had started the farm in 2004 on rented land from a dairy-farming couple. This farm had been a dairy farm for four generations. We started our farm with, really, the help and generosity and mentorship of these two dairy farmers—you know, plowed our first fields and what not. And those dairy farmers, while we were farming there, passed away, and their house and their farm, 100 acres, went on the market for millions of dollars. So we anticipated that we had to find another home for our farm and were on another rented property when we really started to think about this idea of a coalition, because on that rented property, although we were renting from another farmer who was also very good to us and supportive and had the right expectations of what a farm should be and look like, and he had tractors we could rent—but nonetheless we couldn’t make capital improvements on that land. So for us to really continue our farm operation into the future, to make a farm that was going to support us and our future family for generations and decades to come, we knew that we had to have permanent land access. And this issue of land access is really one of the founding challenges of the National Young Farmers Coalition, because when we went out to look to buy land in our region, farms were selling for $8,000/acre and up; nothing was really under a million dollars. And we had a town very supportive of farming, but no place for those farmers to really set up shop.
AOC: Yeah, it’s a pretty rare young farmer that’s going to have a million dollars to invest in a piece of land, right?
LS: That’s right. But we were financially successful; we had a good, solid business model, about 600 CSA members. But nonetheless we were not able to afford farmland because there is so much competition from developers, from folks who are buying farms as second homes or estate properties or what not. There’s really no room for us.
AOC: Can I just pause you there for a moment? Because it’s really a very particular moment, and this something that happens to young farmers. And we hear often about land access. You know, you’ve built up this very successful business, 600 people relying on your CSA boxes. That takes a lot of infrastructure, a lot of commitment, a lot of time and energy—and suddenly you don’t have your land. What is that like for a young farming family?
LS: The loss of land is incredibly difficult. And I can say this because we’ve experienced this sort of emotional roller coaster, which is really what it is. And just this week, in fact, some very dear friends of our who farm locally, who also have a CSA, had this very situation where they were ready to re-up their lease and suddenly the land owner decided that they didn’t want to have a CSA operation on their property because of impacts of people coming and going and cold storage. You know, a farm is a farm, it’s an active business place, and it’s not a park. With non-farmers, there’s just unclear expectations between those farmers and the farm family. But when that happens to young farmers, or to any farmer for that matter, it is very traumatic and very emotional because of course it’s hard to move the greenhouse and the cold storage and get the tractors on the trailer and move them. But I think what you can’t move is the love that you put into that land, the soil, where the wet spots are and where the slope is. The knowledge you have of that land, that’s something that you have to start from scratch at another property. And for us, also, the consideration was the customers and the people who know you and the contractors you have that are ready to help when necessary. All those relationships, both with the land and with the community, are critical to having a successful farm—as important as anything else. And so, when a farmer is separated from that land, it’s being sort of separated from a member of the family or this critical business infrastructure. And it’s very real and very, very sad for families when they are made to make that choice and make a move off of a piece of land. And in fact, it’s something that I would say is so difficult for many farmers that I’ve seen some just not go back to farming at all, because they don’t want to see that happen again. And if they can’t find a piece of land that they can see themselves on and they have a piece of paper that says they are the titleholder of that land, they own it or they have a very long-term lease, they just—it’s not worth it to go back and put that emotional time and sweat equity into a piece of property if they don’t know that that’s going to pay off and they’re going to be able to be on that property for years to come.
AOC: So, Lindsey, now you have a lot of experience talking to farmers, you’re in the communities, you’re always around these conversations. But these aren’t things that you’re even talking about incidentally or anecdotally. You have now two surveys of farmers that have clearly identified access to land as a primary issue. Can you talk about that survey and what else you found as the barriers for farmers to farm successfully?
LS: That’s right. So the National Farmers Coalition, as I said, we started these conversations in 2009. One of the first things that we did in 2011, and we just repeated again last year in 2017, and we just came out with a report with the results, but was to survey young and beginning farmers to see what those needs are so we can have real clarity in our work to know what we need to prioritize and what we need to work on first to help young and beginning farmers really thrive. And so, when we did this survey in 2011, actually the number one challenge that came up for farmers was access to capital, and then number two was access to land. And in this most recent survey, access to capital has actually shifted down the list, which is great to see because I think that there have been a lot of improvements with USDA microloans and other types of capital that have come into play that have been very helpful for farmers. That doesn’t seem to be such an issue at this moment. But access to land is now the number one challenge facing young and beginning farmers across the country.
AOC: And I think some of the other priorities would be a little surprising to people.
LS: So access to land was the number one challenge, of course. Student loans came in as the next challenge for young and beginning farmers. Health insurance, labor—these were all the challenges that were identified as top challenges by our young farmers.
AOC: One of the things I thought was interesting in your report of the survey is you said, you know, despite all these things, young farmers are hopeful. What gives them hope?
LS: That’s a great question. I think what gives them hope is that they have these strong relationships with members of their community. So many of them are doing direct-to-consumer sales, so at the farmers’ market, through CSA, even through some cooperatives. They are feeling real support from their community. And I think they see the revenue that they’re making every year, the number of shares that they’re able to sell every year, the market opportunities that are presenting themselves, they are increasing. And so I think, even though it is hard to get all the pieces together to be able to run a successful farm, and land access being the most difficult for most of our farmers, they see that there is opportunity there and there’s room to grow and there is a future in farming, which is really terrific to see. If, of course, they can get land, being the number one thing, in place and they don’t have some of these big things, like losing health insurance would be another thing, or even student loan debt being sort of this creeping, difficult issue that they might have and can even get in the way of young farmers or any farmer accessing additional capital that they might need to grow their farm. But I think really the influence of the consumer, the interest in organics and small-scale agriculture and farmers’ markets and direct sales, that is very motivating for farmers. I think that our farmers are also just really loving being farmers. They’re loving being on the land, being outside, loving the lifestyle and the work, the hard work and the real work of being in agriculture and being farmers. I think that also is very motivating, to see really the fruits of their labor.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor. I’m here today with Lindsey Lusher Shute, and she is the executive director and co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition. We’re talking about young farmers and their future and the obstacles that they have to face to farm successfully. Lindsey, when you go and you—I know you’ve testified in front of policymakers. Can you talk about how your organization approaches the regionality and the differences—you know, farming in the Midwest is very different than farming on the east coast or the west coast, for example. How do you guys sort of encapture the whole country?
LS: That’s a great question and of course is a challenge, right, to do that? We started the organization with myself and two other Hudson Valley farmers, and what we knew was the Hudson Valley and New York State agriculture, where we have plenty of water. And then we started a Colorado regional program, a southwest regional program. And where we were really struggling with land as our number one challenge, out there water was the number one challenge, and accessing water rights, in particular, was a very significant challenge for those farmers. So you’re absolutely right, the challenges are very different depending on the region of the country. And so we’ve done this in a couple of ways. Number one, we try to have staff that are spread out into areas of the country so we do have that real reach. We have, our headquarters are here in New York but we have staff in D.C. and in Colorado and actually in Louisiana as well. So we’re trying to have that breadth as an organization. But really what informs our priorities on a regional basis is our chapter network. We now have 40 chapters in 28 states with incredible leaders at the helm of each of those chapters. And those chapter leaders come together each year and talk to us about the challenges that they’re facing in their own regions, and then we have regular communication with them as well. So those chapters help to inform our policies priorities and platform and help us ensure that we are really representing the diversity of the country in terms of regions, and approaches to agriculture, and racial diversity. All those things are incredibly important as a national organization to really representing the nation and the nation’s young farmers.
AOC: Right, okay. So I know that after the 2011 survey, which came up again with access to capital was one of the primary issues, you, for example, went before the Senate Ag Committee and talked about access to credit there. You do all kinds of work—you wrote a New York Times op-ed piece, “Keep Farmland for Farmers”; you have these national campaigns; you do a lot in the policy realm to advocate for farmers and their issues. So there’s that piece of the coalition. But I know that there’s some also really on-the-ground, pragmatic pieces that you guys do for young farmers as well. Can you talk a bit about that?
LS: Sure! Well, if anyone listening is interested to learn more about how to save money in buying your seeds and supplies this year, please go to YoungFarmers.org and check out our membership page. We offer discounts to Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Redback Boots and all kinds of companies that farmers are depending on. So we do have a membership program that does have a lot of great incentives for farmers. We also do trainings for farmers at conferences, both on policy, how to work on the Farm Bill, what is the Farm Bill all about, how to engage your elected officials in understanding the needs of rural America and young farmers. We work on that leadership development, and that advocacy training is really a core part of our work. In the last couple of years, we’ve added additional types of trainings in our western team in the Southwest. We have something called Water Bootcamps, where we train farmers to understand water law to some degree and also be very good water stewards, and we bring in local experts to speak on those issues. We have land access trainings where we help farmers through our project called Finding Farmland. We help farmers understand strategies for purchasing land and even compare financing options for purchasing farmland. We also have Food Safety Modernization Act trainings. We have a program that we initiated last year with the National Farmers Union where we’ve been giving FSMA trainings all across the country. And last year also, in cooperation with the Farm Service Agency, we did credit trainings as well. And there’s going to be a FSA guidebook coming out on our website, YoungFarmers.org, to talk about loan programs from USDA. So we’ve been adding, in addition to our work on advocacy, we’ve been also building up our business services as an organization to really give practical support to our young farmers where we see gaps exist.
AOC: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is this—I’ve heard you say it again here several times—this cooperation with partners and with organizations, with policymakers, and amongst the farmers themselves. I read that you say, “We reject divisiveness between farmers.” Can you talk about that and why that’s important?
LS: That’s a great question, and thank you for bringing that up. Yes, that’s one of the sort of the guiding principles of Young Farmers Coalition, is cooperation between all farmers—as much as possible, right? I mean, farmers are not going to…they are a wily bunch and have strong opinions, as they should. And so of course not everyone’s going to get along all the time. But we at Young Farmers Coalition very much believe that we need to have respect for farmers and experienced farmers and generations of farmers. There is so much to be learned about farming and agriculture and the business of farming from previous generations and more experienced farmers. And that’s, in part, what that is all about. So many of our farmers are certified organic, right? And it may be that their best mentors know nothing about organic or don’t even like organic or voted for somebody else for president! All these things come up, right? There can be real political or philosophical or practice divides within the farm community. But we want to ensure and really be behind this idea that it is a farm community, and it’s okay to have different opinions but at the end of the day we are all farmers, and we all have many of the same tractors, need to work with the same mechanics, and that sort of thing. So it’s really embracing this identity of being a community of farmers and working through those challenges together.
AOC: So you have your finger on the pulse of what the needs are—probably the premier organization for young farmers in the country. What is it that you need to do your work well, and what do farmers need? What kinds of policy changes? What kinds of support? What kinds of things—you know, if you had your wish list, what would it be?
LS: The number one thing that needs to be addressed in this next Farm Bill is this issue of land access. In the next five years—just the next five years—we anticipate that about 100 million acres of U.S. farmland is going to need a new farmer. So without real intervention through… Conservation is one that we point to all the time, the opportunity and role of conservation easements in protecting that land for farming into the future, to protect it from development, and also to protect to affordability of that land for future generations of farmers. We need to take proactive steps to ensure that there is an adequate land base for family farmers into the future, or we will continue to see more development, more consolidation of existing farmland. There is not going to be place for an independent family farm operation. And I think that is a major loss for the country. So in this next Farm Bill we are very much looking to ensure that we are shoring up that land base for farmers. And we’re really providing an opportunity and a path for farmers who are ready to retire and pass on that land, that they have the opportunity to really pass it on to that young farmer. Because many of them want to—they want to see their land continue to be held by a family farmer and give that opportunity to the next generation. But it’s not always possible.
AOC: Right. I mean, when you say it’s not possible, it just goes back to the story that you told at the beginning of our time here, which is when you were farming on this land with this farmer, he loved your operation, he loved what was happening, but when it came time for them to retire, their land was worth so much money. There isn’t a farmer in the world who’s going to be able to just walk away with nothing for their retirement, right?
LS: That’s absolutely right. And we’re not in any way suggesting that farmers should not be compensated for the full value of their land. So there’s opportunities through the tax code, through capital gains being one example. Conservation easements are a way of filling that gap between what a farmer can afford and what the full value of land is. That’s a very effective strategy. So we’re absolutely looking for opportunities to make that choice a choice for farmers that are ready to retire and transition their land to the next generation.
AOC: So, Lindsey, we know the number of farmers farming today is so much smaller than it was in, say, 1950. Can you talk about why that is and what’s been happening? And what do you mean when you say an “independent family farm”?
LS: That’s a great question. In an independent family farm, you know when you see it, is maybe an easy way to put it, because there are some obviously very, very large, highly consolidated farm operations that are owned—they’re family businesses, right? So that there is a distinction there. And usually what we’re talking about is a farm that the land is owned and operated by the same person—so an owner-operator. And the reason that we have lost so many family farms—I mean, there’s many reason for this, right? And some of those are just trends of urbanization, opportunities elsewhere, and of course the farm crisis that we had in the 1980s, where so many farmers… And I think that this is a particular thing that we’re dealing with now, is that in the 1980s, during the farm crisis, there were so many farm families that really encouraged their children to find opportunity elsewhere, as really any parent would do, right, because they want the best for their kids. And they didn’t necessarily see what’s best for them being right there on the farm. So that’s why, in the case of the dairy farmers that we were renting from initially, that their four kids also ended up in agriculture in sort of their own ways, but none of them stayed on the farm because that’s not something that their parents had really encouraged them to do because they lived through that. And this is why we have this sort of broken generation now, right? There’s this generational gap between the retiring farmers and then these young people, and why overcoming the gap of having very young farmers and farmers who are in their seventies is so challenging. And of course, there are other issues why farmers have declined in certain regions. Certainly in the South, with black farmers, we have…issues of discrimination and land loss are very real and have led to precipitous loss in the number of black farmers in the southeast United States and across the country. So there are many reasons that have led to the decline. And right now what we’re doing is trying to plot a path forward where farmers of all backgrounds really have the opportunity to succeed.
AOC: Right, and that is an issue for you. I know that’s something that you list in your priorities is really looking at farmers of color, women farmers. Generally speaking, when we think of farmers we think of Old McDonald, right, and the man who’s generally a white man on the farm. Talk about why that’s important, to think more broadly now.
LS: That’s right. In our survey we found that more than half—60 percent of our survey participants—were women, which is a major shift, and that’s because women as owner-operators is the major shift. Of course, women have always been on the farm and have always been doing a lot of the hard work of making the farm and the farm family work, as a business and as a family, but not necessarily as owner-operators, right? So that is a major shift that we’re seeing in this next generation, the presence of young women starting their own farm businesses, which is really exciting and certainly a shift from generations past. I think the last USDA Census of Agriculture has about 30 percent of women as owner-operators. And the other aspect of this work, and thinking about the future of farming in the United States, is really embracing the fact that we need to build in more diversity. And we have a population of farm workers in this country, many of whom are undocumented, that are likely some of the best farmers that this country has, right? And the fact that those farmers don’t have the opportunity to access any USDA programs to build farm businesses here in this country is a major missed opportunity for the nation. Given the lack of farmers that we have right now—only 6 percent of farmers under the age of 35, just between the last two Censuses of Agriculture we lost over 90,000 farmers—we need to create a real pathway for those farmers that right now do not have citizenship status, to be able to become owner-operators of their own farms. There’s just no question. There’s such an incredible talent pool that we are totally missing. This idea of inclusiveness and diversity and justice, it is where our young farmers are. It is the future they see and the future that they are motivated to fight for. They want to see their peers from all backgrounds have the same opportunity to succeed in food and farming.
AOC: Hear, hear! Well, stronger together, for sure! Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and co-founder of National Young Farmers Coalition, thank you so much for joining us today. Where should people go if they want to hear more about your programs for National Young Farmers Coalition?
LS: They should go to YoungFarmers.org. That’s the best place. We’ve got our most recent survey report up on the website and lots of opportunities for joining and getting involved at the chapter level. There’s lots of ways to get involved.
AOC: Lindsey, thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing out there.
LS: Thanks so much, Anne.
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