Immigrants and refugees: the next generation of American farmers?

Your farmer is getting old.

The average age of American farmers is now over 57 and farmers aged 65 and older are the fastest growing group of farm operators, according to the USDA. The number of farms owned or operated by farmers under the age of 30 continues to shrink.

Where are new farmers going to come from?

African Refugee Farming Project (Photo: Francis Zera, Zera Photography)

They’re coming from Somalia, Burma, Cambodia, Mexico; from around the world.

We read daily about young well-educated – and sometimes well-funded – couples that are becoming farmers. But what about those who come here with little except hope and the ability work to grow food for themselves and their families?

Three years ago, two groups of East African refugees from Burundi and Somalia came to the US, settled in Puget Sound, and began farming on a 10-acre farm with help from local non-profit organizations, a community college, and Washington State University. It’s been hard; they’ve had the well-meaning – though sometimes scattered – support from disparate groups. And they’ve had to overcome the theft of their farming equipment, including two rototillers, numerous hoes, shovels and boots, and even the field’s aluminum gate. Yet, they struggle on.

Apprenticeship versus incubator

Programs abound, and more are being started every day, to help teach beginning farmers the skills they need to succeed as they work the land. Apprenticeship programs like the Greenbank Farm Training Center, Whidbey Island WA, even though they are subsidized, are expensive to participate in.

At Greenbank, hands’ on in-the-field, as well as classroom training, costs $3000 per 31 week session. Young farmers work hard, spending more than 400 hours to grow vegetables, care for the farm’s poultry and bees, and manage the marketing of the Center’s CSA. While they come away with skills and knowledge to become self-supporting farmers, the “fruits of their labor” are sold through the program’s CSA to support the training center.

Minnesota Food Association Big River Farms Training Program

The Minnesota Food Association has a different approach: a farm incubator. The Big River Training Program teaches immigrant and minority farmers the production, marketing, and business skills they need to successfully operate small farms.

Big River’s key difference is that, unlike the apprentice farmers-in-training at Greenbank, these farmers are independent businesses earning an income from the very beginning. Start up costs are about 20% of the fees charged at Greenbank and Big River brokers sales of the vegetables for the farmers through a CSA or to wholesale accounts.

By renting small plots (1/4 to 3 acres), providing shared infrastructure and equipment, and teaching and mentoring, Big River mentors and nurtures farmers that are not only learning a new set of career skills, but are often adjusting to a new culture and geography.

A better way?

While the African Refugee Farming Project in south Seattle is bootstrapping 25 to 30 farmers on 10 acres, they’ve started slowly. The first year Project grew primarily corn, beans, and potatoes and more than 3000 pounds of food went to waste. The second year – 2010 – the farmers planted a wider variety of food that would sell better at their farm stand and compete with other vegetable farms in the urban area.

A strong, well organized program like the Minnesota Food Association’s Big River Training Program could have helped them be successful from the beginning.

By advising and mentoring, the Big River program points beginning farmers to vegetables that will produce a good quantity of good quality produce for their first year’s crops and at the same time, gives them the opportunity to grow traditional crops from their homelands, if they choose.

The second and third year, the farmers learn more about crops on which consumers place more value and which will generate more income for the amount of labor needed – heirloom tomatoes instead of summer squash, for example.

Beginning farmers with the financial wherewithal to participate in the Greenbank Farm training program will learn all the skills they need to start their own farms; beginning farmers in the Big River program already have their own farms. They are raising their own crops and earning their own income as soon as they put shovel to soil.

For more information

Big River Farms Training Program

Greenbank Farm Training Center

The Refugee Farming Project