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Small farmers are struggling in a world of mass production and it’s becoming a problem in the United States.
The problem is multifaceted, but ultimately, the age of farmers in on the rise; in 2007 the USDA noted the average farmer was 57 years old.
This shortage isn’t driven by lack of interest; there are plenty of young professionals looking to get into the industry. Instead, the primary issue lies in the constraints of starting a farm: access to land, capital, and adequate training and support.
To combat the issue, the farming industry has started developing incubator farms, a new model for rookie farmers to learn both farming and farm management skills. According to the Journal of Extension, an incubator farm is “a place where people are given temporary, exclusive, and affordable access to small parcels of land and infrastructure, and often training, for the purpose of honing skills and launching farm businesses.”
The supplies and services provided by incubator farms vary wildly. Some common threads include small land plots for experimentation, equipment for tending land, and access to infrastructure for basic needs (power, water, internet, etc.).
Some specialized incubators provide produce washing stations, natural pesticides, and specialized harvesting tools. The most valuable benefits they provide, however, are access to land on which to test an idea and expertise in bringing the idea to fruition. Generally, 10-15% of participants from three of North Carolina’s extension-associated incubators “graduate” and go on to open their own farms. These programs garner interest from 25-50 individuals per year on average.
Incubator farms also bring a pre-established market presence for new farms, readily certifying their goods as locally grown and helping to increase visibility for new farmers.
Farms, like other businesses, need cash flow to operate effectively. A nonprofit farm typically receives financial support through:
- Federal and state grants
- Membership fees
- Co-op sales
Cash flow is vital to providing water and infrastructure services, consistent land access, and equipment maintenance.
Graduates of the Beginning Farmer Program, a federal farming loan program, are making conscious efforts to bring their products to low-income areas. They currently sell at 23 farmers markets and through 10 community-supported agriculture networks in areas that regularly struggle with access to fresh produce.
Programs like FARMRoots in New York offer low-income and minority families the opportunity to improve their quality of life while building toward something they will one day own. Since participants can still work several hours per day at another job to cover expenses and build up a nest egg to launch their business, the program is a boon to many New Yorkers.
Incubator farms will likely continue to teach people to farm and help them gain experience before they go out into the world and have to manage all aspects of farming — including marketing, distribution, and sales — independently.
As farmers pass through these organizations, they help the cycle expand and flourish to include new farmers in each region. Farmers can cooperate and share information about sales strategies, regional growing knowledge, and even pool resources to lower their operating costs. An average farm with more than $30,000 profit can expect to spend more than $800,000 per year.
Studies have shown that average farmers are few and far between, but, with the help of farming incubators, newcomers can continue expanding and developing the agricultural industry.
Image Credit: Fotokostic / Shutterstock