By Chris Peraino
A Long Island chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), a nonprofit that mobilizes young farmers and promotes sustainable farming practices, is scheduled to materialize by the end of summer.
Spearheading the organizational effort of Long Island’s chapter is Will Lee, owner of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic. Support from Amagansett Food Institute and Peconic Land Trust has been elicited as Lee attempts to coerce more businesses throughout the growing season.
“The Young Farmers Coalition is focused on new farmers, a different demographic,” Lee said. “And that’s a different demographic that I think is going to take over in the future, so I felt obligated to get involved.”
By belonging to the coalition, new farmers gain access to a nationwide community with a tangible agenda that promotes sustainable farming practices, independent family farms and farmer-to-farmer training. Increasingly, farming is trending towards niche and specialized markets. Because of this, farmers cannot rely on mere agricultural aptitude. They must also boast a sharp business acumen if they are to successfully run a small business in an industry of tight margins.
“I think that it’s difficult for people to get all of the information that they need in order to start farming successfully… there is nothing in place from Cornell or Peconic Land Trust to really help develop a business strategy that will work in this changing environment,” Lee said. “We’re seeing a change from the old school potato farmers and the old cauliflower and brussell sprout farms turning over and being smaller acreage, more speciality crops, a specific niche, food for each individual farm.”
Sang Lee, an early adopter of increasing sustainable trends, has been a certified organic farm since 2007. Organic farming is both nutritionally and environmentally advantageous. Conventional farming has been proven to disrupt biodiversity by depleting species of bugs, in return limiting access of food for animals further up the food chain, creating a damaging compound effect. In aggregate, organic farms are also found to bear healthier soil.
But to farm organic is less profitable than to farm conventionally. The synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and growth hormones used in conventional practices are substituted with natural remedies: manure, pest-killing birds, crop rotations. Because of greater work intensiveness, organic farmers incur substantial labor costs. Organic farming also produces lower crop yields.
The Young Farmers Coalition seeks to remedy this conflict by engaging young and new farmers and reshaping prevailing agricultural attitudes towards sustainable practices, most notably through the promotion of small-scale independent farms.
“We use the term ‘young’ to grab the attention of our policy makers,” NYFC’s website reads. “When young people band together to fight for policies that support them, Washington responds. Many of the most successful social movements in history were in part driven by young people, and the food movement is no exception.”
As detailed in the Academy-Award nominated documentary Food-Inc. and by countless agricultural scientists, today’s large-scale and industrial food system consumes fossil fuel, water, and topsoil at unsustainable rates. As our population grows exponentially, our food supply filters through resources faster than they replenish. Beyond this, packaged food that travels long distance loses nutritional value, as they are harvested before fully ripe in order to survive lengthy trips.
“In order to combat the world that we live in and the food network that exists and the distribution chain and the large food companies and the giant system that we have in place over the last fifty years, the only way to really make any change and create difference is to start young and is to change the mindset of people who live in the area from an early age that eating a fresh carrot is better than a carrot shipped in from California,” Lee said.
Despite the fact that the median age of American farmers is 58 and increasing, the NYFC believes that there is an untapped pool of willing young potential farmers inhibited by farming’s tight margins.
“America needs young farmers to support our rural economies and feed our citizens for generations to come,” Andrew Bahrenburg, National Policy Director for NYFC, said. “Young farmer support must be a national priority.”
Farms that produce less than $100,000 of gross sales netted an average annual loss of $400 in 2016, according to the USDA. Though that compares favorably to other years, 2017 has been less fruitful: during the fall season, farms of this size averaged a net loss of $900.
And although the national age of farmers is increasing, the number of farmers under the age of 35 in New York grew 14.4% from 2007 to 2012, according to the USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture. This is well above the modest national increase of 1.1%.
“A lot of farms have to operate on thin or negative margins when they’re getting started,” Jenny Ifft, Assistant Professor at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business and former employee of the USDA, said. “A lot of people, when they start farming, they’ll have an off farm job for several years. They need an alternative source of income, if nothing else, to deal with the ups and downs of markets.”
On April 6, the NYFC released a statement detailing its support of the Young Farmers Success Act, a measure that categorizes young farmers as public employees, which would enable them to qualify for student loan forgiveness.
“Young people are ready to farm, but student loan debt is one of the biggest barriers to entry and success in agricultural careers,” an April 6 statement obtained from Sue McGovern, NYFC’s press contact, said.
Although he is in support of the potential legislation, Lee believes that the most beneficial way to support new, independent and organic farmers is to enact policy that directly supports the public consumers rather than farmers themselves.
“I think the most influential piece of legislation that could easily be passed is not necessarily waiving educational costs,” Lee said. “I think if you were to actually, federally support small farm food production that was local and sustainable by supplementing low-income people to be able to purchase those products at a sustainable price, then people like me could sell to people that wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford a high quality product that’s grown in Suffolk County.”
Such measures are already in existence. Massachusetts, for example, matches dollar-for-dollar all purchases that recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (colloquially known as food stamps) buy at local farm stands and farmers markets, an initiative that began on April 1.
“I’m not trying to move boulders, but I would throw a couple more shovel full of materials into that funding bucket,” Lee said.
In order to combat prevailing notions of farming and encourage support for locally grown produce, Sang Lee Farms continues to host educational and outreach programs for the local Long Island community, something Lee hopes to further spread with NYFC.
“It’s written in everybody’s genetic code to be a steward of the land, to take care of the environment,” Lee said. “You see people mowing their lawns and they take care of their house and their yard. It’s just human nature to take care of what’s around you. Being a farmer and being outside and growing your food product is one of the basic principles of life itself and I think that everybody can respect that.”