Census shows young farmers starting businesses


Yesterday, we filled out our first ever USDA Agricultural Census.

At first, I was a little annoyed — we had to rifle through farm maps, income records and our memories to find the data they needed. The USDA completes the Census every five years, and they ask about every piece of a farm business, from off-farm work to sales to crops.

But somewhere near the end of filling in the census, I realized that this was a momentous occasion: the information we were sharing — about a young, diverse, growing farm business — was helping inform our country and our policymakers about what’s happening nationwide.

After we pressed “submit” on our census, I thought back to another census we filled out last year — this one from the National Young Farmers Coalition, a group we’re members of that serves beginning farmers. They surveyed more than 3,500 beginning farmers (that’s folks like us, in their first 10 years of farming).

They turned that data into a report to help guide the upcoming Farm Bill, which sets the policies for everything from food stamps (now called SNAP) to crop insurance payments. The goal of surveying so many young farmers was to show what folks like us need to successfully start and sustain young farm businesses.

I opened the report and was, momentarily, blown away: there are thousands of other farmers under age 35 starting businesses nationwide; most have college degrees; most are growing a wide diversity of crops and selling food directly to consumers; most are focused on environmental sustainability.

I quickly realized that I was just reading what I already see all around me, right here in southern Indiana and on my own family farm:

The average farmer is a man in his late 50’s. Most of the farmland is owned and operated by folks over 65. It is fine and perhaps wise to have our elders controlling the stewardship of our land — but still something we need to plan for. After all, nearly 100 million acres of land will change hands in the next five years, as these folks retire. Each of these farms needs a new farmer.

This is certainly true in own life. My mother and her peers have been switching into retirement mode. She continues to live out her principals on a daily basis with her trademark combination of creativity, efficiency and hard work. But I’m also seeing her put emphasis and rightfully so on travel, time with grandkids and fun.

We’re slowly transitioning more of our family farm from her stewardship to ours. Nate and I recently pitched the family on a new project that will bring the last 37 acres of the family farm into our care. Together with my family, we have decided on a plan that can meet their needs and hopes as well as ours.

This process needs to happen not just on our 37 acres, but on 100 million.

If you want to read more about what farmers need to make this transition a positive one, visit youngfarmers.org or stop by our Farmer’s Market booth in Seymour or Columbus. We can talk together about the numbers — and our experience here in Indiana — all morning.

Liz and Nate Brownlee operate Nightfall Farm in Crothersville. Send comments to editorial@

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