Growing Our Own Future: What Can Young People Do for Sustainable Agriculture?

By Rose Delle Fave

Some of us in this program may dream of starting our own farms someday, but that is certainly not the dream for most college-aged kids. We may see sustainable agriculture as a way of reconnecting with the earth and caring for our planet, but other people our age may see it as a nice idea that will never provide them with a profitable career. Why do they think this way, and how can we change their minds?
Many of our discussions this week have brought up the question of how the next generation will inherit and proceed with our current food system. The average age of farmers in America is 59 years old, which means that many will be retiring soon and we’ll need new farmers to replace them. But even the young people who do want to get involved in producing food face such difficult obstacles as access to land, student loan debt, and affording their own healthcare. How can we expect them to want to inherit an environment that may not be sustainable for growing, as well as a career that may not be sustainable for earning a living? 
With government subsidies going to large conventional farms for corn and soybeans and fewer and fewer young people wanting to start careers in farming, it’s easy to see why one might become cynical about the future of small-scale and sustainable agriculture in this country. However, the people we met this week continually gave me hope for what the next generation can achieve. Becca at Seeds Farm graduated from St. Olaf, started her own farm, and hired a recent graduate from Carleton (there are no more college rivalries here!). Matthew Fitzgerald worked with the National Young Farmers Coalition to get a bill passed that provides tax incentives for retiring farmers who sell or rent their land and equipment to beginning farmers. Dave Legvold opened up his farm to student researchers from Carleton, St. Olaf, and the University of Minnesota to study his system of water buffers. The average age of farmers in America is 59, but that doesn’t mean that there are zero young people working in ag. It just means that we should shine a spotlight on those who are making a difference in their field so that we can prove to others that agriculture is meaningful and can offer a fulfilling career.
If I have learned anything during this first week, it is that there are many, many avenues for becoming involved with agriculture. Whether it’s education, research, policy, or doing the growing yourself, there’s something for everyone in the realm of food production. We just have to find ways of opening doors for the next generation to get involved.
And maybe the simple and easiest answer is just to get young people to dive in and get our hands dirty — for us to volunteer at a local farm or community garden, or even get to work on a student farm. That’s how it all began for me, working on the Carleton Student Organic Farm. We went back there on Friday to work with the Farm Interns, two students who manage the 1.5 acres of land during the summer months, and they were so glad to have our help. With many hands working together, we were able to accomplish what would have taken them days in a number of hours. The sheer strength of the community working in ag amazes me, and during this program I am constantly reminded that we’re not just students living and learning in our own little bubble while we prepare to join the real, adult world. Our lives are happening right here, right now, and there are so many amazing things we can do with them. If I could give some advice to any of my peers, it would be this: keep living, keep learning, and keep growing.

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