By Michele S. Byers
Do you know who grows your food? Chances are, it’s a farmer nearing retirement. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study shows that the average age of the American farmer is 55… and climbing.
At the same time, young farmers under 25 are declining. That should not be a surprise in this state we’re in, where land costs are high and few 20-somethings can scrape together the funds for farmland and equipment.
It doesn’t take a math whiz to foresee problems in a future without young farmers coming along to replace the retiring generation.
A new program by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey and the Duke Farms Foundation in Hillsborough seeks to reverse this trend by lending a hand – and a patch of farmland – to aspiring young farmers.
That patch of land is the “incubator farm” being created at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, Somerset County.
The nearly 3,000-acre estate of the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke was recently transformed into a model of environmental stewardship and sustainability. In addition to expansive natural areas and miles of walking and biking paths, 140 acres are set aside for low-cost leases to new farmers.
“We’re pretty excited about it,” said Eve Minson, coordinator of the Beginner Farmer program offered by Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, which has its headquarters at Duke Farms. “It’s a really unique program – not a lot of people in America are doing this. And, it has a lot of value.”
When you’re a farmer starting out, she notes, “All you do for the first three years is spend, spend, spend.” The Beginner Farmer program – funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant – is designed to reduce the cost and risk of starting a farming business.
Beginning farmers accepted into the program can lease farmland at Duke Farms for below market rates. Barn space is included, and plans are in the works to provide a large cooler room for fresh produce. A farmer’s market will open at Duke Farms next spring, giving the farmers an opportunity to sell produce directly to the public.
Those accepted into the program are also matched with a mentor and given a stipend for educational courses.
Applicants need to have some farming experience, such as attending an agricultural college, working on a farm, or raising crops or farm animals at home.
In addition, they must provide a business plan and agree to use certified organic farming practices. For instance, said Minson, an applicant might seek a half-acre to grow organic culinary herbs for the restaurant trade, or 5 acres to raise free-range chickens whose eggs would be sold at local markets.
Hats off to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey and Duke Farms for helping beginning farmers clear these economic hurdles. The first of the beginning farmers will start at Duke Farms this fall, and Minson hopes three or four more will join them during the winter.
For applications and more information on the Beginner Farmer Program, go to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey website at www.nofanj.org.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.