When the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) first formed in 2010, the group faced an uphill battle.
The organization, which operates as an independent nonprofit, represents a demographic that is both underserved and underrepresented in modern agriculture.
According to the USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture report, the average American farmer is over 57 years old, just five years away from the average retirement age. Meanwhile, small family farms — the kind managed by most new and first-generation farmers — account for only 24% of agricultural production. That proportion has decreased since the early ’90s, with the industry shifting toward family farmers that are bigger, older and more established.
Hayley Wood, an urban farmer based in Austin, Texas, said the deck is stacked against her generation.
“I think young farmers are basically set up to fail in this economy,” she told In The Know.
Wood, freshly 25, is part of the coalition’s now-10,000-strong organization of farmers. Among other things, the group empowers Gen Z and millennial growers by connecting them with grants, resources and a community of people who can relate to their struggles.
Bringing ‘climate resilience’ to farming
The NYFC is deeply concerned with the kinds of people who grow our food and how they grow it. The organization’s stated goals include a heavy emphasis on sustainability, as well as racial and social justice advocacy in agriculture, a field in which over 95% of the producers are white.
Kelsey Keener, who runs the Sequatchie Cove Farm in Marion County, Tenn., said that many of these principles are what first drew him to the Young Farmers Coalition.
As a kid, he watched his family pick up their life in the city and move to Southern Tennessee, where they began experimenting with sustainable farming tactics.
“At that time, you could pull out a map of the entire country and probably mark a dot on every sustainable, organic-type farm in the whole country,” Keener, who’s in his early 30s, told In The Know. “And it would not be that many dots.”
As Keener got older, he watched eco-conscious farming take off, thanks in large part to people around his own age.
“We’re just always striving to have the most sustainable practices possible,” Keener said of his own farm. “That’s [a] really important thing to us, taking care of the planet and taking care of this land we have.”
Keener is now a member of the coalition’s Southeast Tennessee chapter, in which he said his status as a second-generation farmer makes him a rarity. Most of his fellow members are the first farmers in their families, and many are figuring things out as they go along.
“There’s this younger generation of people who want to do the right thing,” Keener said. “They want to be environmentally conscious, but they don’t necessarily know how to.”
Sustainability was a big draw for Matt Sparacio, too. Sparacio, now also a Southeast Tennessee member, spent years working as a teacher in New Jersey. But one day, he and his brother had a life-changing discussion.
“We had this conversation about healthy, clean foods,” he said. “And where you could source proteins that weren’t raised in feedlots and in inhumane ways.”
Sparacio and his brother, Micah, wondered why their love of meat and their passion for ethical, sustainable farming couldn’t coexist. So, they set out to make it a reality. In 2015, the brothers left for Tracey City, Tenn., where they now run Cove Creek Farm.
At Cove Creek, the brothers prioritize environmentally sound practices, such as constantly moving their cattle to preserve their pasture’s ecology. That decision alone can help reduce manure buildup, water erosion and soil runoff.
Farming for “climate resilience” is one of NYFC’s main guiding principles. On a national level, this means appealing to Congress or highlighting farmers who are experimenting with new, eco-minded methods.
Locally, Sparacio said the group’s climate agenda is more about sharing knowledge and showing each other what works.
“A lot of times people associate farming and environmental policies with not being able to coexist, whereas I feel that they need to coexist,” he said.
A ‘scaffold’ for new farmers
At 40 years old, Sparacio is a senior member within the NYCF. As such, he’s heavily focused on mentoring the next generation.
“We kind of created the foundation for them with our local chapter, but we really want them to express their concerns going forward,” Sparacio said. “Because I’ve got 20 years of this physical labor left in me. But the younger ones have 40 years, and it’s gonna impact them more.”
The issue, of course, is that new farmers face an uphill battle in terms of education, organization and land ownership.
That’s not to mention the money. According to the USDA’s most recent figures, the average farm costs $182,130 in expenditures per year — a steep bill for anyone, let alone someone in their 20s.
When speaking with farmers, the word “impossible” comes up a lot. The job is such a struggle, Sparacio said, that he and the other members sometimes wonder whether it’s ethical to bring more young people into the agricultural world.
“We often joke that, ‘OK, do we really want to trick other young people into farming?’” he said. “Because it’s a hard profession.”
Wood agrees, adding that the path is even harder for first-generation newcomers like herself.
“It’s a lot of having to do self-work,” she said. “There’s no succession in terms of land, knowledge, wealth.”
Keener, in many ways, sees these issues as motivation. To him, it’s all the more reason why veterans need to put the next generation in a position to succeed.
“It’s [about] that support network,” he said. “The whole purpose of the organization is to be there for all these up-and-coming farmers.”
Sparacio said the Southeast Tennessee chapter soon hopes to launch a more hands-on form of mentorship.
The group has plans for a sort of farm incubator, where newcomers can pilot their own ideas on another farmer’s land. Sparacio sees this acting as a “tiered internship,” with the younger farmers gaining more and more responsibility over time.
“We want to be able to provide that access,” he added. “To kind of be a scaffold for people who are hesitant to take that leap into farming.”
An ‘isolating’ job
The NYFC is, in many ways, a place to exchange ideas. But it’s also a community, a chance for farmers to interact, complain, joke around and check in on each other.
For some farmers, the social aspect is as crucial as any other benefit.
“Farming is so isolating,” Sparacio said. “I mean, you’re with animals most of the day, and it’s a lot of individual work. It’s nice to have that community to connect with.” His farm lies in a rural area between Chattanooga and Nashville, and he embraces his chapter’s meetings as a much-needed social outlet.
It’s clear other farmers in his area feel the same, too. As Sparacio explains, he and Keener’s chapter has exploded in popularity since the start of the pandemic. After a much-expected dip in turnout during early 2020, group attendance has bounced back. Sparacio said their last meeting had almost 50 attendees from three different states.
Wood has been farming only since 2019, but she has already seen just how tough the isolation can be. Last year, she took over as director of the NYFC’s Central Texas chapter. She sees her group, among other things, as a chance to make sure farmers know they’re “not going through those experiences alone.”
Mental health is a crucial issue among farmers, with CDC data suggesting that the profession has some of the nation’s highest suicide rates, particularly among men.
It’s an ongoing problem with complex, intertwining causes. However, Wood notes that at least one problem is the way farming forces people to live such non-typical lives.
“At times, I think a lot of people experience a serious disconnect from the economy outside of them,” Wood said. “Even the people they’re selling to, their lives are just so vastly different.”
Agriculture, Wood adds, has experienced much of the burnout and job fatigue felt in nearly every industry over the past two years. And while the Young Farmers Coalition can’t offer direct mental health support, it can point members in the right direction.
Wood’s chapter has made a priority of lessening the load for young farmers. For example, it offers help with grant applications, which can be very confusing and time-consuming. Meanwhile, the Southeast Tennessee chapter is working on creating a unified sales network, so its members can sell some of their products in bulk.
Ultimately, Wood said, it’s about turning an “impossible” career into something manageable, satisfying and fulfilling.
“People want work that is meaningful,” she said. “They want work that is tangible, and they want something that is connection-oriented.”
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