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Young Farmers: Make Your Voices Heard

By Liz Pickard, Twin Oaks Dairy, Truxton, NY

I'd be preaching to the choir if I said farming was a tough career. Over the course of 12 years of doing farm work, I've had many ups and a lot of downs. Yes, I was doing what I loved - providing healthy organic food to my community. And yes, it was satisfying to draw milk off the bulk tank right into a glass, or to watch the winter wheat that I had sown come up in pencil-straight rows, or to pull jewel-colored carrots out of the ground and act surprised every time. But living on a farm worker's wage is hard. I mean, living on any farm wage is hard, whether you're the owner or not. But that's just it- I wasn't the owner. I was the hired hand, who was out of work come November, scrambling to find a new place to live and a new coffee shop I could work at while I waited out the snow. And I knew that at my current rate, I would be about 60 years old before I had enough money saved up to start my own farm.

For first-generation farmers like myself, this is a common story. With no land, equipment or livestock to inherit or borrow, utterly lacking in start-up capital, and saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, we are the laughing stock of the loan offices (I have literally been laughed at by a loan officer, just so you know).

Some first-generation farmers can do it. They work offfarm, have a spouse with another job, or have well-off family members to help them out with start-up cash. Generally, they work themselves to the point of burn out, or, if they're lucky, until they make it.

But more often than not, they give up - get tired, get jaded, or are just sick of being broke. I have been in this position, and have many many friends and peers in this position, and it is not a fun place to be. What to do? Give up on your dreams? Take that office gig that pays well and comes with benefits but you know will make you hate yourself?

This is why I helped start the Central New York Young Farmers Coalition (CNY-YFC). CNY-YFC is a local chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an amazing group of young farmers who got together and decided that this was no way to treat the people who feed our communities. They work at the state and national level to advocate and inform on policies that support young or beginning farmers.

NYFC has made incredible steps towards developing policies that address the needs of beginning farmers. This year, they successfully lobbied for implementation of the Working Farms Protection Act (WFPA) in New York. Farmland access is a huge hurdle for young farmers. The WFPA helps address this issue by making working farm easements permanently eligible for funding through the State's Farmland Protection Implementation Grant (FPIG) program. Working farm easements include farmer ownership and affordability provisions such as preemptive purchase rights, which help keep protected farmland affordable and in the hands of actual farmers.

For our recent September meeting, our local chapter was visited by David Howard, the Northeast Campaigns Direct for NYFC. He was interested in hearing what's working and what's not as far as ag policy on the state level goes. The group had a chance to discuss some of the strengths in our region (access to great markets, lots of other farmers to network with and get advice from, for example). We also discussed where we'd like to see improvement (crop insurance programs, issues with Empire State Development's New Farmers Grant Fund Program, and issues with NYS's Young Farmers Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program).

I could go on about this group and how inspiring they are, but I'd rather just invite you to be a part of it (every farmer, every age). We have meetings about once a month to work on projects or organize events. The meetings are usually in Dryden, NY, at no specific day or time but rather when we can all manage to get together at once. There are 10-30 people at meetings, and we often gather somewhere where there is also pizza. Contact us through our Facebook page @CNYYoungFarmers, or via email at cnyyoungfarmers@ gmail.com. And while you're online, check out the NYFC website for more information about their important policy work: YoungFarmers.org.

Liz Pickard is farming at Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, NY. She can be reached at elizabethpickard@gmail.com