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Winds of change: weathering climate change and growing a new generation of farmers

October 1, 2012

Climate change affects so many aspects of our lives, but one vital to all of us is agriculture. Unpredictable weather patterns add another layer of risk farmers already encounter as food producers. In a recent USDA blog post, the author stated that scientists predict variability in weather patterns will increase as the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) increases in the atmosphere. Crop insurance and more equitable attention to specialty crop (the government’s term for fruit and vegetables) growers are of greater and greater consequence. Will our farm bill meet the real needs of farmers that grow food for people?

With increasing demand for local food, more and more farmers in colder regions adopt season extension structures – i.e. hoop houses to start seedlings earlier and grow crops longer. But hoop houses cannot protect whole fields from early frost, excessive heat, drought or epic floods.  In September of this year, the USDA claimed that nearly 65% of the continental United States was experiencing drought conditions. East Coast farmers from North Carolina to Vermont are still recovering from Hurricane Irene’s flood that dumped rocks and contaminants on their fields and decimated their crops in 2011.

USDA scientists developed strategies to address “Local and Global Food Supply and Security” and published them in their 2012 Research, Education, and Economics Action Plan. Securing a sustainable food supply is one of their core missions, and includes helping the nation’s producers with resources to prepare for climate change.  Through agency collaboration, USDA hopes to:

Develop knowledge and tools to enable adaptation of agriculture, forestry, and grasslands to climate variability and to improve the resilience of natural and managed ecosystems and vulnerable populations; and develop knowledge and tools to enhance the contribution of agriculture, forestry, grasslands, and other land management practices to mitigate atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

These resources cannot be developed or delivered too soon.

While farmers learn about growing food in a changing climate, there is also the question of who our growers will be in the future. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a Minnesota farmer, for example, is 55.3 years. The Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) highlights dramatic changes for the U.S. Agriculture population as a whole.

  • Half of all current farmers are likely to retire in the next decade
  • U.S. farmers over age 55 control more than half the country’s farmland
  • The number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987
  • New farmers make up only 10 percent of farmers and ranchers

The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and Renewing the Countryside recently offered a farm transition workshop to farm and agricultural landowners. Retiring farmers learned how to transition their farm to best serve their family. If a family member does not want to continue the farm operation, giving a leg up to a new farmer by mentoring, leasing or selling farmland to them can be another option. It’s one way to preserve the infrastructure of small farms otherwise sold to developers.  More “matchmaker” resources are being created to help navigate this uniquely critical time as U.S. farmers age and retire, and new and beginning farmers need practical hands-on training and good agricultural land.

As a training ground for new farmers, Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project offers information for new and old farmers to find each other through Seeking Farmers-Seeking Land Clearinghouse Listings.  The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) hosts Land Link-Up on their website. CFRA provides consulting and matching resources for beginning farmers and established landowners to work through transitions of farm families and the next generation of farmers –  finding mutual benefit and keeping the land in farming.

Winds of change touch every one of us, but they don’t have to blow our house down. Support saving land for food. Encourage new farmers. Do your bit to counter climate change.

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