Small Farm Incubators: Innovation for Farming’s Future
Who are the farmers of the future? Asked in 2002 how large an operation would have to be to be considered economically viable for the long term, a group of Purdue University agricultural economists gave this answer: “…between 2000 and 3000 acres of row crops and 500 to 600 sows.” Assuming that model, it’s no wonder so many small family farms face a dim future. Although just a generation ago, enterprising young folk typically practiced under the tutelage of a family member, there are not so many of the next generation standing in line to carry on the family farm today – if that family farm hasn’t already gone under. The fastest-shrinking farming demographic is under the age of 45. How can we keep land in agriculture, and find the farmers who’ll farm it? Given the challenge of shaping a sustainable food future, the Corn Belt model cannot be the answer.
Smaller, more localized and collaborative hubs of production and distribution are concepts which innovative thinkers agree upon. Enter the small farm “incubator”, an idea which has manifested itself in programs across the country to train and mentor first-generation and other beginning farmers, help them acquire land and equipment, and provide market opportunities. Some are funded federally; others are non-profit organizations, and yet others are supported by universities, rural extension services and independent community organizations. There are rural programs which focus on immigrant farmworkers, urban programs for refugees, programs for veterans, and just about anyone truly serious about farming as a business.
According to one USDA website, “ The reasons for the renewed interest in beginning farmer programs are: the rising average age of U.S. farmers; the 8% projected decrease in the number of farmers and ranchers between 2008 and 2018; and the growing recognition that new programs are needed to address the needs of the next generation of beginning farmers and ranchers. According to the Farm Bill, a beginning farm is considered to be one that is operated by one or more operators who have 10 years or less of experience operating a farm or ranch. In 2007, approximately 21 percent of family farms met that definition.”
One of the exemplary incubator models is ALBA, the Salinas-based Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association, which officially took shape in 2001 after years of work under other auspices. ALBA’s mission is to “advance economic viability, social equity and ecological land management among limited-resource and aspiring farmers.” In the northwest, incubator projects similar in scope include the Small Farmers Project of Huerto de la Familia and Community by Design, LLC in Oregon; Viva Farms in Washington’s Skagit Valley, Seattle Tilth’s own Farm Works project, and WSU’s Small Farms Project focusing on Latino, Hmong and East African immigrants. Full Circle is committed to supporting these and other small producers in as many ways as we can. Getting the word out is one: it’s work like theirs which is integral to building a diverse, vibrant and sustainable food and farming future.
What do you think? Are small farms a viable option for the future? Let us know in the comments below.