Central Texas sees more young farmers in training, matching national trend

Farmshare Austin works on 10-acres of farmland in Central Texas. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)
Farmshare Austin works on 10-acres of farmland in Central Texas. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – More young farmers are joining the agriculture industry and for the second time in the last century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture shows an increase in the number of farmers under 35 years old.

Farmshare Austin trains new farmers through an 18-week program on their farm. Michelle Akindiya, education manager at Farmshare Austin, says they’re out on the 10-acre farm three mornings a week. They train students in a variety of areas, including: organic and sustainable growing methods, soil and fertility management, business planning and equipment use. Another mission of the program is to bring produce to the communities that need it, such as where they’re located.

“You have to have a car in order to access healthy food in this area,” Akindiya said.

She said growing produce is particularly difficult in Texas because of the extreme climate. “We have extreme weather patterns where it might be 70 degrees today, but tomorrow it might be 25 degrees,” she said.

Akindiya said Farmshare Austin sees more young professionals wanting to build a career in farming, despite the difficulties they may face. She used to work in theater in Chicago. “I was tired of working inside a dark black box,” she said.

Akindiya eventually worked on a farm in the Midwest and now works with students each semester to hone their skills on the farm. “They want connection with something tangible. There’s something tangible and immediately rewarding about growing food.”

Ross Abbot, one of Farmshare Austin’s students, used to work with music production and technology. He, too, wanted something different.

“There’s a huge gap between generations of people who know how to farm,” Abbot said, citing how he wants to continue the practice of growing organic food.

The National Young Farmers Coalition’s new report surveyed nearly 5,000 people between January and February 2017 — 3,517 of them were aspiring, current and former farmers under 40 years old. The report lists access to land, student loan debt, labor and health insurance as top challenges for young farmers.

Andrea Abel, executive director with Farmshare Austin, explained in an email about the need for certain policy priorities to be enacted at both the state and national level.

Abel said Texas should look to other states, like Minnesota, for ideas of land ownership policy.

The NYFC  report said participants of their survey cited lack of affordable farmland for sale as the number one challenge for land access. “According to the USDA Land Values 2016 Summary, agricultural real estate values doubled in the years between 2004 and 2013 and continue to rise in many parts of the U.S.”

Army veteran Adria Garcia served overseas in Baghdad and was injured during her time in the military. She said she turned to farming recently after realizing eating from healthy food sources helped her with her autoimmune disease. From experience, she says certain aspects of both fields parallel each other.

“I think veterans would do great in agriculture,” she said. “There’s a lot of discipline required. There’s a lot of ‘adapt and overcome.’ We all know how to do that. We’re trained to do that.”

Using her skills she’s gaining from Farmshare Austin, she plans to take it back to another plot of land to do something similar. Her goal is to spread education and awareness about growing organic food.

Certain resources are available for new farmers, such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. It’s directed by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and is a competitive grant program dedicated to education funding and training. A quarter of the program’s yearly funds go to minority, veteran, immigrant and female farmers.

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