At about the same time that Cory Twigg and his crew were in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania painting our new barn red, I learned of a farm dinner being held at Savage River Farm in Garrett County Maryland – about an hour away. I loved Farm-to-Table food, reserved a spot for myself, my husband Terry, and our friends Pat and Frank. When Pat gave me a check to pay for the meal, I cleverly tucked it under my napkin, ate the delicious dinner, drank a little too much wine, and left the farm without the check.
The next morning, when I realized my mistake, I returned to Garrett County and met Hana Yoder for the first time. Hana and her husband Ben had owned and managed Savage River Farm for five years – and I knew them by reputation as among the most beloved young farmers in the region. Seeing my abashed expression (after all, how idiotic to have left the check behind), Hana smiled, handed me the check, and answered my many questions about their farm and the food co-op they ran. I loved everything Hana told me about it, and signed up as a member on the spot.
Not long after joining the co-op, I happened upon the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) website and learned that the NYFC was created to tackle structural and economic issues that prevent motivated young people from succeeding in farming. I learned that farmers over the age of 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one. Nearly 2/3 of farmland is managed by someone over 55. And it’s likely that by 2022 nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland will change ownership and need new farmers. Young farmers like Ben and Hana are entrepreneurial and tough, but talent and hard work alone do not equate to farm success and the biggest challenge for young farmers is finding land affordable enough for them to buy.
Without secure land tenure, they are unable to invest on on-farm infrastructure and conservation practices critical to building soil quality, financial equity, and their businesses. But farmland in the U.S. is a limited resource that has become increasingly inaccessible to the next generation of farmers. According to USDA, agricultural real estate values doubled in the years between 2004 and 2013 Development pressure, high demand from other farmers and speculators, and competition from non-farm buyers has made land prohibitively expensive for young farmers.
During my visits with Hana during co-op pickup, I asked her about what I’d learned online. She confirmed everything I’d read. For some time, the Yoders had been looking for a place to buy, rather than rent. Both Hana and Ben graduated from agricultural college in North Carolina and had been farming for 5 years, which gave them experience they needed, but did not qualify them for mortgages, loans or much of anything else. Farming on leased land meant they were never sure about the future. “We love raspberries, but we don’t plant them,” she said. “Who knows if we’ll be here long enough for them to fruit”
So I wasn’t surprised when during one of our conversations, Hana asked me to keep an eye out for any farms in our area that might come up for sale.
Hana didn’t know me yet, and had no idea how seriously I’d take her casual request.
No sooner had I returned from the co-op, than Terry and I were combing the Pennsylvania countryside, looking for a farm for the Yoders. We found a few, but nothing affordable or appealing. I asked Hana about them, but she knew them already and they wouldn’t work. Disappointed with the dearth of farms for sale, Terry and I kept on looking. We checked the newspapers, the internet, drove down gravel roads and into remote areas on the off-chance we’d find something suitable hidden away somewhere. Still nothing. And then, about three weeks into our search, as I was taking my plate to the sink after dinner, I turned to Terry:
“But wait. We have a farm! We have more land than we could ever use, right? And a big barn that we don’t need?” Terry laughed. “Yep, we sure do.”
I raced for my phone and texted Hana: “Hurry over, we’ve found you a farm!”