This is a period of intense change in American agriculture.
Extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, prolonged periods of drought, and increased risk of flooding have made it more challenging for farmers and their crops to thrive. As farmers adapt to the climate crisis, they are also being asked to take action to prevent these very effects by altering their own practices to reduce emissions. These shifts are accelerated by evolving consumer preferences, as younger Americans increasingly demand information about where and how their food is grown. And beginning farmers, who find themselves on the frontlines of this turbulent period, face major challenges in securing the land they need to launch their careers.
These are among the major concerns that Congress must balance and prioritize as it prepares the 2023 farm bill reauthorization. Farmers and food companies alike need a farm bill that provides modern tools and resources for existing farms to respond to rapidly changing agricultural conditions while laying the foundation for the next generation to succeed.
Private-sector food companies can, and should, play a major role in helping to solve the land access crisis, helping farms mitigate and adapt to climate change, and supporting the financial viability and resilience of farms. At Stonyfield Organic, we take these responsibilities to heart. We helped launch an apprenticeship program for new organic dairy farmers in 2015 at the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, a thriving farm nestled along the Atlantic Coast in Maine that has become a leading outpost for organic research and practices.
In addition, we have worked with Wolfe’s Neck and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to build OpenTEAM, an innovative program designed to advance tools that support farmers in improving soil health and mitigating climate change. And each of the farms in our direct milk supply has access to $4,000 in technical assistance funds annually that they can use to advance the sustainability and viability of their operation.
The apprenticeship program has graduated many young farmers, yet it wasn’t until 2021 that a graduate of the program was able to successfully secure his own land to begin a dairy farm — Mayday farm in Leeds, Maine, where Haden Gooch and Katie Gualtieri milk 30 cows and raise pastured organic broiler chickens. They are now enthusiastic participants in Stonyfield’s OpenTEAM pilot, and we are excited to work with them on tracking changes over time in using their land to sequester carbon and fight climate change as they work to revive old pastures.
These programs serve as a model for how food companies can partner with both early-career farmers and experienced producers looking to adapt to change. But to succeed at scale will require public policy, and the farm bill is the place to achieve it. Farmers need expanded technical assistance, creative land access solutions, modern risk management tools, and support as they respond to growing consumer demand for organic food and regenerative farming by adopting climate-smart practices.
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According to Building a Future with Farmers 2022: Results and Recommendations from the National Young Farmers Survey — a survey of more than 10,000 young farmers from across the country organized by the National Young Farmers Coalition — 59% of all young farmers identified accessing land as a top challenge. This is an even greater challenge for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, communities that have been historically discriminated against in accessing land and capital.
Despite these issues in accessing land, 87% of young, BIPOC farmers cited engaging in conservation or regeneration as a primary purpose of their farm. What’s more, 73% of young farmers say they have experienced at least one climate impact in the past year. As the National Young Farmers Coalition survey found, land ownership provides security that is critical for the long-term investments that farmers must make in soil health, infrastructure, and irrigation to build resilience in the face of the many challenges of farming, such as climate change.
Failure to support young and BIPOC farmers in accessing land risks stifling opportunities for the farmers of the future who are practicing the agricultural methods our food and farm systems need. At the same time, it is also critical that we help our established farmers navigate the challenges of climate change with better technical assistance and risk management tools. We must address the changing needs of farmers, or we risk undermining the long-term security and resilience of our food and farm systems.
With farm bill negotiations underway, we believe the ground for these policies is fertile. Congress must not miss this chance to lock in the resources, the programs, and the opportunities our farmers and our food system need to successfully navigate this time of transition.
Britt Lundgren is the senior director of sustainability and government affairs at Stonyfield Organic.
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