Another View: Vermont agriculture is in good, young hands

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One of the opportunities that has come from the challenge of this pandemic is a renewed interest in local produce, meats and other Vermont-made products. It is a most welcome trend. The movement has farmers eager to see just how prosperous this growing season might be.

An article by Shane Rogers of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has been circulating in recent days. Specifically, it speaks to the younger generation of farmers here. Rogers is the communications manager for VSJF.

"As it stands right now, 15 percent of the 6,808 farms in Vermont have a young operator' — age 35 or below — working on the farm," Rogers writes. "These farms steward 256,363 of the 1,193,437 farmland acres in the state and are responsible for 30 percent of the $781 million total market value that agriculture creates in Vermont. While the contributions of young farmers are not insignificant, there still remains 937,074 acres of land that don't have a young operator involved in the farming of that land, with over 15 percent of those farmers being 75 years old or older."

He posits a tough question: Is farming even still a viable career for a young person?

Rogers looks at the burdens that come with being a young farmer, going well beyond the high cost of farming, as well as the challenges of climate change and extreme weather events. He points to the burden of student loans, skyrocketing health care costs and child care considerations.

He maintains those are not deterrents: "Whether it's for the love of the land and working outdoors, an affinity for animals and plants, or a belief in creating a food system that works for everyone, they're dedicating their careers and lives to making farming work in Vermont among the ever-changing landscape of our food system," he writes.

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Rogers points to how young farmers use social media not just to market their products but to share their struggles and successes. He maintains that the younger generation of tech savvy farmers is creating a community — online as well as physically. It creates both a following and a support network — and a brain trust when it comes to troubleshooting and best practices.

Younger farmers also are pivoting to changes in the traditional business model, often dividing their operation into thirds: CSAs, farmers' markets and wholesale production.

He points to younger farmers' willingness in this day and age to pull from the expertise of others.

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Experts are working with the younger owners to help in business planning, transfer planning, enterprise development and cash flow analysis. "Part of the job also involves not pulling any punches," Rogers notes.

That is yielding growing success.

"(W)hether it's for new and beginning farmers or old hands of the trade, is to identify viable entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector and help that to flourish. And when it comes to doing that, while he appreciates folks' principles for getting into growing food in the first place, he takes a very practical approach to it all," he writes of one young farmer's experience.

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Hurdles remain, Rogers writes. "These issues can range from an increase in land pressure for nonagriculture use that drives up prices and threatens the very working landscape that Vermont has built its brand around; to an aging Vermont farming population that are remiss to see their farms run in different ways; or such other issues such as student debt, health care, retirement savings and housing concerns," he noted.

Similarly, Rogers notes, for young people who want to get into farming, especially those coming with backgrounds not steeped in agricultural, "the skill set needed for the career can sometimes be difficult to grow. While working on a farm is certainly the most direct way to start building a r sum in that regard, pay can be low, the work is mostly seasonal and with the general hustle and bustle of the farm, it's difficult for farmer-owners to find time to explain the decisions they're making to their staff."

But it is encouraging. And to answer his question, it is viable.

"As the next generation of farmers prepares to step into the shoes of generation's past, there are plenty of issues that still need to be resolved in order to preserve the working landscape and ensure agriculture remains a viable industry in Vermont. However, when it comes to answering whether farming can still be considered a viable career for young people in the state, there appears to be hope on the horizon."

At a time when hope has felt remote, we should feel very good that our farms are in good, young hands.

— Barre Montpelier Times Argus, May 27


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