The Next Generation of Farmers

by Michelle Greenwood

Is Niman Ranch, or a model like it, the future of farming? 

With its appreciation of farmers and farming, it just might be.

Led by Danielle Nierenberg, Leader Summit panel, The Next Generation of Farmers started out with the challenging news all too familiar, but the panelists, Niman Ranch farmer, Paul Willis, father/daughter farmer duo Jason and Jaclynn Knutson, and interim director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, Martin Lemos, offered hope too.

Martin framed the discussion by saying, “No farmer gets into farming under the illusion it will be easy.”  

Throughout the discussion, panelists made it clear: student loan debt, access to real estate, health care, credit access, skilled labor, climate change, and immigration, among other issues, challenge both farmers and our agricultural heritage.

To bring these facts to life, farmer Jason Knutson shared his experience with escalating land cost.

Jason’s first property, acquired in 1996, was $600 an acre. In 2013 he purchased additional acreage at $9000 an acre–and to hear him tell it, “It was slightly better land,” the audience could only extrapolate, but not that much better!

It wasn’t hard to do the math!

So, what is the next generation of farmers to do?

Slow Food members are familiar with the statistics; the average age of farmers across the United States currently sits at 59 years old. How exciting to learn the average age of Niman Ranch farmers is 43. It’s farmers like recent college graduate, Jaclynn Knutson, who help to bring that average down.

Jaclynn credits a dream to work and someday run her family farm to a Niman Ranch Next Generation Scholarship that helped her graduate student loan debt free (putting her ahead of most young farmers who enter farming with $35,000 in student debt).

According to Paul Willis, “It’s the Niman way to build a culture that respects our farmers.” Jaclynn echoes the idea, “… that’s what I like about Niman, they have real value.”

When an audience member asked, “Is there such a thing as good farmers and bad farmers?” Paul responded, “The good question to ask, ‘how is it raised?’”

Niman Ranch farmers raise hogs on pasture without antibiotics.

To support farmers, Niman offers fair pricing based on production, a premium over the market price and a floor price. According to Paul, the Niman way puts a value on the work, moving beyond the commodity world based on volume. Paul asked the audience to consider a similar formula when purchasing; it’s about “the value you’re getting, not just the number of pounds.”

Niman is only one organization working with farmers to bring back an agriculture thought lost to agribusiness.

We need more.

Martin reminds us, “… farmers can make a difference, it’s a bleak conversation, but having the conversation is empowering.” As we move into the future, Martin wants us to “elevate these issues and ask for change.”

It’s easy to feel an inspired urgency sitting in beautiful, mountainous Colorado, and it’s equally important to carry the conversation home.

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