Today’s farmers are, for the most part, highly skilled multi-tasking professionals who share a deep connection to the land and feeding our communities. But the people who choose to farm today are dwindling. They are also aging. Today’s farmers are looking for ways to share the value of their lifelong experiences with new farmers in order to preserve our ability to feed ourselves and maintain healthy agricultural lands. I talked with Nellie McAdams of Rogue Farm Corps about the future of farming and was encouraged by the work she is doing to help the next generation of farmers.
Nellie McAdams’ childhood was full of weekends learning how to farm from her grandfather and father on her family’s hazelnut farm in Gaston, Oregon. A fifth generation Oregonian, she has inherited a deep connection to Oregon’s land and its agricultural community. She knows just how important the legacy of farming is, especially since it is under threat right now.
The farming population is dwindling.
Never before has the agricultural community been so small. Today, only about 1% of the U.S. population is farming, and the average age of U.S. farmers is 60. Rogue Farms Corps, where Nellie now works, predicts that 10.45 million acres of farmland out of Oregon’s total 16.3 million acres will be changing hands in the next 20 years as farmers retire. Oregon’s farmland and rural way of life could change irreversibly if they are not protected.
Farmers are pressured to sell off land to absentee owners.
Increasingly, farmers have been pressured to split up and sell their farmland, often because they need money to stay financially stable in the short term. This means that they then have a smaller plot of land and thus a harder time making a profit in the future. Investors often attempt to buy this land to manage from a distance because agricultural land has proven to be a better long term investment than the stock market.
Nellie and other farmers know that this kind of absentee ownership is problematic. If landowners are farmers themselves, they are less likely to have the land developed because they see it as more of a family heirloom. On the other hand, according to Nellie, investors that make solely profit-based decisions about land use are “why you see a lot of rural communities regress or fall apart because they have lost the social network and local infrastructure that keeps the community together.” Threats to farmland turn into threats to agricultural communities, which in turn threaten our ability to feed ourselves.
Preserving farmland for future generations: conservation easement
As Farm Preservation Program Director at Rogue Farm Corps, Nellie works to preserve farmland for future farmers. One tool that she uses is called a conservation easement, which occurs when a farmer voluntarily gives up certain property rights such as the right to sell land for development or aggregate mining in exchange for cash. She explains that, “Conservation easements are win-win-win because they preserve the lands from development, they give the farmer cash without having to sell off chunks of real estates, and the property ends up being reduced in value so it is more affordable.” By giving farmers a way to make money without selling their land, conservation easements protect farmland. By preventing absentee owners, conservation easements protect agricultural communities.
Supporting first generation farmers
With so many farmers retiring and their children leaving for other work, it is important that new farmers take their place. First generation farmers are often the people who have trouble acquiring affordable land as well as necessary farming skills. Nellie describes how these first generation farmers have to give it their all in order to make it. “They have to learn how to farm at the same time as they learn how to make money. It’s really hard to do that.” They struggle to get a foot in the door.
Rogue Farm Corps works to train these first generation farmers in order to facilitate the transition of farmland to new farmers as opposed to investors or developers. Their entry level farm internship program gives hands-on learning opportunities to those who want to explore farming as a career but do not know much about growing crops. After this internship, they can go on to the advanced apprenticeship program, which teaches them the business side of farming so that they can run their own farms.
Why should we care?
Nellie wants the public to realize the importance of protecting Oregon’s farmers and farmland: “If you value the quality of your food, if you value the availability of habitat for fish and wildlife, it you value clean water, if you value equity with urban and rural communities and providing economic opportunities to rural residents, if you value our identity and lifestyle as a state that appreciates entrepreneurs who are making their living on the land and stewarding it at the same time—those are all reasons to care.”
Oregon was founded on farming, and it is important to continue its farming legacy in the future.
For more information about the next generation of Oregon farmers, visit the Rogue Farm Corps website.
Elizabeth Allen is a rising junior at Duke University. She worked at Crag during the summer of 2017 as part of the DukeEngage program.