Young people don’t want to farm anymore. Can Pennsylvania change their minds?

Young people don’t want to farm anymore. Can Pennsylvania change their minds?

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Tucked among rows of prize-winning mushrooms and squash, heirloom chickens and a milkshake stand, the Pennsylvania Farm Show has in recent years offered a new exhibit: “So you want to be a farmer?”

Across the country, legions of young people have emphatically answered “no” to that question, instead choosing more lucrative desk jobs that come with vacation time and 401(K) plans. But not in Pennsylvania, where members of a new generation are trading in keyboards for tractors at higher rates than in other states.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have prioritized agriculture, safeguarding more than 600,000 acres of farmland from commercial development since 1988 — more than any other state — and passing a tax credit for beginning farmers. State lawmakers also wrote the nation’s first state-level farm bill in 2019, partially modeled on the federal farm bill, with a focus on workforce development, boosting conservation and organic opportunities and helping family farms plan for generational succession.

It could offer a roadmap for the nation. With millions of acres of American farmland set to change hands in the next 20 years, state legislators and agricultural policymakers are warning of a crisis for domestic food production and fading vibrancy in rural communities. The U.S. has lost over half a million farms since the 1980s and the average age of the American farmer has ticked up to 58. Without reliable domestic food production, they say, America’s ability to feed itself and address global food security could be in jeopardy.

“We have a vision for Pennsylvania agriculture,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who has served both Republican and Democrat governors for more than 20 years in top agriculture posts, said in an interview. “We see an opportunity here and we're going to invest in that and hopefully we can make a compelling case that this is an industry worth investing in.”

For Christa Barfield, who previously worked in health care, farming offered a chance to feed her community while finding more balance and job satisfaction. However, unlike farm kids who inherit both precious land and critical skills, she hadn’t grown up driving combine harvesters or herding sheep.

“I had never touched soil a day in my life,” said Barfield, who is Black. She began farming at age 30 on a one-acre lot in her backyard in inner city Philadelphia in 2018.

Fast forward six years and Barfield’s business, known as FarmerJawn, spans 128 acres in and around Philadelphia, producing organic fruits and vegetables to sell in the city’s food deserts, which lack full-service grocery stores and access to fresh produce.

Barfield is exactly the kind of young person policymakers are pining to bring into farming, but there are few people willing and able to take on a labor-intensive business that involves lots of unforeseen risks. Many farmers under age 35 are also like Barfield in that they aren’t inheriting family land and farming assets.

And while Barfield may be somewhat unusual, that may be changing. The most recent Census of Agriculture showed an 11 percent increase in beginning farmers, defined as producers with 10 years of experience or less. Still, even this group’s average age was over 47.

“It’s about access to capital, access to markets, access to people,” said Redding. And it’s about training a new workforce, he added, pointing to state investment in groups like Future Farmers of America and the Center for Dairy Excellence, which offers apprenticeship programs and grants to new dairy farmers.

Although Pennsylvania is not immune to national trends, state lawmakers are determined to preserve one of its most important economic drivers. Only Wisconsin has more dairy farms than Pennsylvania. And growing food and everything that underpins that effort supports one in 10 state jobs, according to the state’s department of agriculture.

The Keystone State also boasts characteristics that make it a promising home for young farmers. With several large cities within driving distance on the densely populated East Coast, Pennsylvania offers smaller farmers ample business opportunities through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture shares.

Farms in Pennsylvania are also typically smaller than in the Midwest or the Great Plains, making it easier for farmers just getting started to succeed. Cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have also offered training opportunities and made land available, such as through Pittsburgh’s farm-a-lot program, where residents can lease land from the city and give farming a whirl.

And while Pennsylvania is currently the only state in the country with a politically divided Legislature, agricultural policy hasn’t suffered from lawmakers unable to compromise.

“It's actually a really lovely bastion of bipartisanship,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Emily Kinkead, a Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “There's not really a lot of controversy.”

That allows lawmakers to home in on policies designed to support young farmers, unlike their federal counterparts who are on track to delay passage of the federal farm bill for a second straight year. That typically bipartisan process has become ensnared in partisan fights over the Biden administration’s signature climate investments and funding for federal anti-hunger programs.

“Everybody was on board,” said Pennsylvania Sen. Elder Vogel, Jr., a Republican who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, referring to the bipartisan state farm bill. “The feds can’t even get a farm bill done every five years. How can you expect them to get something done specific to young farmers?”

Still, even farmers who have succeeded with start-up operations in Pennsylvania, like Barfield, state and federal efforts to bring in new and young producers aren’t a panacea. In raw numbers, Pennsylvania continued to lose producers from 2017 to 2022, including those under age 35.

Even with diverse financial and technical assistance available, the state sometimes struggles to connect farmers with key resources. Barfield says that when she started growing food, she didn’t even know the state funded farming apprenticeships or offered grants for startup urban farms.

“I was bootstrapping it,” said Barfield of her first few years farming. “I actually had to become FarmerJawn before anybody even cared to want to reach out a hand and lend a hand.”

Young farmers are also confronting some of the same challenges the broader industry is facing. Market consolidation in meat processors and vegetable distributors, as well as steep prices for materials like seeds and fertilizer, make farming a risky proposition. This new generation also often has big bills to pay: The National Young Farmers Coalition, for example, has made student debt a central part of its advocacy.

Reducing young farmers’ student debt load — something the House Ag Chair G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) also supports — is critical to help producers access capital and address racial equity issues in the nation’s increasingly diverse younger farming set. And the younger generation is vocal about shaping policy to meet their needs: They’re pushing not just for debt relief, but for training in conservation, sustainable food systems and help building an industry that connects marginalized communities with healthy food.

Kinkead, the Pennsylvania representative, said that the state’s policies tend to leave out farmers who run neither small urban farms or established, multigenerational operations.

“We also kind of have a little bit of a doughnut hole in terms of what we cover,” she said. “We have grants that are available for very small farms. And we have supports available for the large traditional [farms], but we don't really have any support or any kind of funding available at the seed level for folks to kind of transition in the middle.”

In addition, while Pennsylvania has successfully preserved thousands of acres of land and offers tax incentives to those who sell or lease to beginning farmers, the state can’t dictate who buys it.

The land can “still go to the highest bidder. I’m going to get outpriced every single time by a large, out-of-state agricultural enterprise,” said Raymond Hoy, 25, who worked with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit which trains beginning farmers. Even if producers find land, affordable housing near cities with a built-in consumer base is financially unreachable, according to Adrienne Nelson, a Pittsburgh-based organizer with the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Farmers in Pennsylvania and local policymakers suggest that creating a farming ecosystem that brings in newcomers requires not just supporting complicated and emotional family farm successions but also embracing unconventional ideas.

For example, they say innovative urban farms shouldn’t be viewed as a hobby but as dynamic options to supply regional food systems. And, they add, it requires tailoring policy to meet increasingly common cooperative models, where groups of farmers work the land and share business tasks, enabling producers to take an occasional week off from long drives to regional farmers’ markets.

“There is so much room in the food system, outside of harvesting lettuce and driving a tractor, that are deeply important,” said Hoy.

Beginning during Gov. Tom Ridge’s (R) administration in the late 1990s, the state added agriculture to the list of industries supported by the state’s “economic development machine,” explained Redding, who was then serving as deputy agriculture secretary. Then, in Gov. Ed Rendell’s (D) administration, the state added a new tool: a loan guarantee program for agriculture. Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) administration conducted a study of agriculture in the state, which helped expand the definition of agriculture to include urban farms and parts of the food supply chain beyond production, such as research and transportation.

Now, under Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s (D) administration, the state wants to expand this initiative with a $10 million agriculture innovation fund included in the governor’s budget proposal.

“We've learned that you've got to look for a lot of different ways in” to agriculture, said Redding. He added that legislators in urban districts have been especially helpful in connecting state agriculture officials with communities that are “historically not some place a secretary of agriculture would go.”

Redding, who is white, added: “I've been in places where I'm the minority, in places where I don't speak any of the language. But they're talking food, which is a universal language.”