To The Daily Sun,
The number one barrier to beginning farmers is, by far, access to farmland. Access to working capital comes in a close second. To be an agriculturalist, as everyone has a least a vague idea, is not an easy endeavor. I however will spare you the lamentations of sunup to sundown, 365 days a year, no vacation stuff. However, this is about how to stay financially viable practicing agriculture in New England.
Back in the 1930s my great-grandfather ran like hell from our family homestead and farm in Center Strafford. Back then, farming wasn't anything like we know it today. It was a necessity of subsistence for many, and it was also a required function to feed the region before the days of globalization. That farm property is no longer in our family as it was a necessity to sell out years ago.
Today, we're experiencing a rising tide in the interest of food production and where our food comes from. The reasons seem to be in a renewed interest in health, environmental sustainability, support for a local economy, and food security just to name a few. This has also driven new and beginning farmers toward another "back to the land" mentality we haven't seen since the 1970s. You can now find college grads coming out with degrees relevant to food production and sustainability that didn't even exist in 1970. We also now see the public more engaged in supporting their local farms with the desire for fresh, local, and sustainable food production.
Some 70 percent of the nation's farmland will transition in the next 20 years. The average age of today's farmer is 57 years old. We are on the brink of a major transition in how food gets into our mouths every day. The next generation of farmers, as well as other "second career" beginning farmers like myself, are primed to fulfill this void and help in the transition of this massive shift in our food production to the next generation of farmers.
As this transition takes place we find that growth in the number of farms reported on the agriculture census are mostly from new growers. Let's remember what I cited before as the top two barriers to fill this coming void: access to farmland and working capital. These are our most pressing issues facing new farmers today and they will dictate how successful we are in this massive transition of our food production.
I have recently attended meetings of the Gilford Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment regarding issues of farming in Gilford. What has been made abundantly clear to me is that there is a deep ignorance about commercial agriculture in New England and the changing face of farming. The other thing that has been made abundantly clear is the bias toward supporting one type of commercial enterprise over another. The boards' willingness to grant zoning changes, or plans to one special interest, over another has been truly appalling.
I have leased land in Gilford on an old dairy farm for over three years now. It's been encouraging to see more and more community members become farm members and support me as I forge a new business in the town of Gilford. I also still struggle to keep my business in the black and am always looking for ways to promote my business in order to increase members and become more financially viable. Agritourism and inviting folks onto the farm could have been one way to do that. Meanwhile, I work land that hasn't been truly stewarded as a natural resource in over 30 years. The aging land owner is thrilled to see the old homestead come back to life after the many years since the dairy shut.
While I'm not a Gilford resident yet, I will say that I have no interest in becoming one now. If the land that I've so diligently worked over the years ever became available to me I would be hard-pressed to seriously consider the opportunity at all. The town of Gilford has made it clear to me that they have no interest in supporting their local agricultural businesses in maintaining financial viability. They instead support only the special interests of other citizens in the town that threaten frivolous litigation.
"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." H.D. Thoreau
So, sadly, I have to acknowledge that as I continue down the path in finding access to land and trying to maintain a viable farm business, I must look elsewhere.