Land access continues to be the top issue facing many new farmers across the Midwest.
Martha McFarland, farmland viability coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa, said land is often one of the biggest hurdles to getting an operation underway. The organization is hoping to solve this by making connections for people who may be looking to retire or pass on their farm.
“When we are talking about generational family farms, many of the next generation isn’t farming,” McFarland said.
For prospective farmers who aren’t inheriting or purchasing land from family, McFarland said livestock or vegetable farming is a popular route. They often require fewer acres compared to a row crop operation.
Impact from COVID-19 has led to more local marketing for livestock farmers, which has created more competition. That hasn’t discouraged new farmers, however.
“Trying to get into a locker or getting a locker date became a bit of a bottleneck, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a decline or disinterest,” McFarland said. “I’m seeing more and more interest in animals like sheep or goats that tend to be more suited for smaller-acre farms like 20 or 40 acres.”
Regardless of the operation, finding the right network or mentor to help guide a young farmer can be critical to getting a good start.
“Relationships are a massive part of the beginning farmer experience — and my favorite part,” said Rachel Burke, beginning farmer engagement coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa. “There are so many experienced farmers who want to help mentor the next generation. They want to make sure they get the education and land and resources they need.”
PFI offers a program to help connect farmers with mentors through online message boards or by working together in person, almost like an apprenticeship. This can often lead to a succession plan for an older farmer who doesn’t have family to take over the farm.
“They are paired with a farmer with experience in record keeping and building up an operation,” Burke said. “They understand finding markets and some of the educational aspects of what they are doing.”
McFarland said new farmers are showing keen interest in soil health and creating a sustainable operation. While there are hurdles, she said the right tools and a little courage can help.
“I would never want to see a young kid coming up feel discouraged,” McFarland said. “I grew up in the ’80s during the farm crisis. The general feeling was don’t get into farming, and I’m grateful I ignored that. I would suggest to get out there and don’t be afraid to start something.”