Investing in next-gen farmers will create resilient food systems

by John Stapel

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

On June 1, the United States Department of Agriculture revealed a historic Food System Transformation plan, a framework that will invest over $2 billion in strengthening local and regional food supply chains, and which I believe has the potential to improve health and wellness in rural and urban communities across the country. Further, these investments are clearly designed to encourage resilience principles — such as connectivity and diversity across our food systems. 

In announcing this plan to transform our food systems, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack promised that there would be another big announcement this summer focused on land access and equity. Later in the summer, the secretary and the department delivered an announcement with $550 million made available to improve access to land, capital and markets; and to build a pipeline of agricultural professionals. 

These investments are a big step forward, and young farmers, like the members of the National Young Farmers Coalition, need to see even more support as we head toward reauthorization of the 2023 Farm Bill. This next farm bill, for many disillusioned young farmers, is our last, best chance in this decade to create federal farm policy that truly serves this generation of young growers. Young farmers need to see sustained evidence that policymakers at all levels of government are committed to ensuring that food and agricultural policy serves the public good, and celebrate and equitably invest in the vast diversity of people, businesses, organizations and institutions that work to keep our communities fed.  

As a country — a vast, complicated, often divided community — we will fail current and future generations if we do not invest heavily and consistently in the long-term resilience of our farmland, food systems and workers. We can reorganize our food and agricultural systems and the public policies that support those systems. The work of thousands of farmers and advocates, and the work of forward-leaning policymakers, have brought us to where we are today. I am encouraged by the work of the Biden-Harris administration, and I am deeply concerned for the future. As we contemplate what could be, we should first take a step back and begin by looking at moments of agricultural transformation in the past.

Throughout history, shocks to society — from plagues to economic uncertainty to natural disasters — have catalyzed a reordering or reorganization of our food and agriculture systems. For example, famously, farm management decisions and agrarian policy changes in the 1930s led to the Dust Bowl. Exacerbated by economic depression, the Dust Bowl led to widespread hunger and unemployment, which gave us one of the most important pieces of legislation that shaped our farmland management, rural communities and food in this country: the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). The act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the New Deal. Today this legislation is commonly known as the farm bill, and it gets renewed every five years. I believe that these past shocks and disasters throughout U.S. and global history have allowed for a reorganization of our agriculture and food system. 

Many of us thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would be a once in-a-lifetime reorganization opportunity for our food system and society. As Naima Penimann reminds us: "In a state of emergency we can choose urgency or emergence," inspired by the writing of adrienne maree brown. 

Throughout history, shocks to society — from plagues to economic uncertainty to natural disasters  — have catalyzed a reordering or reorganization of our food and agriculture systems.

The farm bill is one of the most comprehensive ways to address agricultural and food issues in the United States. Despite its original intent to support conservation practices and stabilize the food supply chain across America, the bill has had dire consequences for Black farmers in the South leading to the decline of Black farm ownership. With the leadership of the Biden-Harris administration, we are actually seeing long-term visioning and investments in the gaps that the pandemic made so apparent.

USDA’s announcement of an investment of up to $550 million divided between two programs for institutions and organizations to support land access and career pathways for the next generation of agriculture professionals will create the tools our next generation needs to succeed in agriculture. This is how these proposed programs can affect young farmers:

Giving young farmers land access

First, the $300 million for “Increasing Land, Capital and Market Access" is aimed at projects and funding community-based organizations leading innovative projects that increase access to land, capital and markets. Access to quality, affordable farmland is the top challenge young farmers face, and it is even more challenging for BIPOC farmers. Young Farmers’ One Million Acres for the Future campaign calls for a historic investment of $2.5 billion in equitable farmland access for the next generation through the 2023 Farm Bill. USDA’s Land, Capital and Market Access program is a starting point to address young farmers' needs accessing land. We must institutionalize similar policies through the 2023 Farm Bill to ensure that we are addressing the land access crisis facing the next generation. 

Building out the government support staff for farmers 

Secondly, $250 million to the "Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Food and Agriculture Professionals" program for universities to boost the farm to food pipeline and hire USDA employers that represent America’s diverse farmers and stakeholders. Often when young farmers and farmers of color go to their USDA offices, the staff doesn't look like them or understand their operations. Hiring a younger, more diverse workforce will give the USDA workforce the cultural competency to better serve this generation of young farmers. 

In a time when USDA staff has dwindled from local and national offices, growing the next generation of professionals is timely and important to support young farmers and underserved farmers access to federal farm programs. 

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

Canceling student debt

The Biden-Harris administration announced a plan to cancel some student loans as another tool in the belt for young farmers. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition’s most recent National Young Farmer Survey, 78.5 percent of young farmers hold an associate degree or higher, and 38 percent carry some student loan debt that inhibits them from building their farm businesses or accessing additional capital to buy land. 

Student loan debt forgiveness is a major opportunity to support the next generation of young people aspiring to feed their communities and build careers in agriculture. According to the survey, 20 percent of young farmers did not take out additional loans to support or grow their farm businesses because of existing student loan debt. So canceling some and all student debt and making college affordable for young farmers is an important investment for the next generation of leaders to get into the land.

I hope to see Congress build on this work as the 2023 Farm Bill takes shape and follows this call to action to invest and truly transform our food system. These investments from USDA are critical, and yet they are only possible because of remaining funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, as amended by the Inflation Reduction Act which was signed into law Aug. 16. Fully resourcing the next generation of farmers and a transformation of our food systems will require consistent, strong and historic investment in land access and transition in the next farm bill.  We have gotten started in building a brighter future for young farmers; let's keep that going.