The Next Generation of Local Farmers Needs Your Support

Bronte Edwards - portrait - MALT

By Bronte Edwards, Land Stewardship Associate

March 13, 2024

THIS OP-ED FIRST APPEARED IN THE MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL

When I began my career in agriculture in my mid-20s, after a decade as a chef in fine dining, working in award-winning vineyards and dairies that produced some of the best cheese in the country, I almost never saw anyone my age working for these operations.

I began to wonder, where are the next generation of farmers? As I dove further into the agricultural community, I continued to see aging operators who were often facing serious health issues with little to no prospects of passing on the family farm to an heir.

It shocked me to learn that these legacy brands that are foundational to modern American cuisine were in such dire situations that were virtually invisible to the outside world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture only 8% of farmers are under the age of 35, a statistic that illuminates the vulnerability of our food system. In an effort to barely move the needle, in 2019 my wife and I founded an agricultural business, selling grass-fed beef and lamb shares.

This past year I’ve been lucky enough to be employed by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the first agricultural land trust in the nation. Their proactive work in the community and unwavering commitment to the continuation of agriculture in our region has allowed me (a young, queer, first-generation, woman rancher) a seat at the table.

Working alongside various partners and government agencies, it became clear that many of us were young farmers ourselves or people who would be farming if they could afford to do so.

Where are the next gen farmers? At work, of course. According to the USDA, more than half of America’s farmers have full-time employment “off the farm.” Maybe they are a bus driver taking your kids to school, a retail person at your favorite wine shop or your friendly Marin Municipal Water District worker.

Bronte Edwards bottle feeding one of her baby lambs.
Bronte Edwards bottle feeding one of her baby lambs.

As my boots hit the ground on more and more MALT-protected ranches, I realized that, regardless of age, many of us in agriculture, whether we are multigenerational agriculturalists or not, are working in town to support our families and passions. We are giving everything to keep the “culture” in agriculture alive – even if it means working more than 16 hour a days.

Why are young farmers breaking our backs and working double time? After all, more than 80% of American farmlands are operated by tenants and the hope of purchasing our own land seems like a far off fantasy. Why are we working 40 hours for a paycheck while simultaneously attempting to grow our businesses in what feels like a house of cards.

A Marin County rancher with one of her sheep.

The funding for MALT’s small grants programs come from private donations from caring people in the community and we often leverage our grant funding with federal, state, and county sources to amplify the impact and help move projects to completion.

We are also incredibly enthusiastic about a new stream of public funding that will further protect our food systems, agriculture economy, and the environment. When Marin County voters chose to extend Measure A in 2020, one of the most exciting aspects of the program was the creation of the Food, Agriculture, and Resilient Ecosystems (FARE) Grant Program.

We do it because we love the land and our livestock. We take great pride in feeding our communities, as well as neighboring communities. We aren’t looking for pity. We want awareness of the great “ask” our society has given to us. Essentially, we are being asked to work two full-time jobs in communities where it is no longer customary for farmers to own the land that they farm.

The current conditions of our world, communities and vulnerable food system call for robust community collaboration now more than ever before.

That’s why, today, we humbly ask for your help, whether it be through simply buying our products and visiting farmers markets. We ask that you support local voter initiatives that focus on funding natural and working land conservation, promote land access and invest in agricultural infrastructure. Please support local organizations, like MALT, that protect regional farmland from further fragmentation and invest in projects to make our food system more climate resilient.

Investments like these in our community help break down barriers to entry and help ensure young farmers and ranchers succeed.

We ask that the community do something, anything, within your individual means to assist and further improve conditions locally so young people can realize their dreams of farming and filling roles that are desperately needed. I ask for the Bay Area community to realize that its support is not only essential to make our food system sustainable, but the lives of farmers and their families sustainable as well.

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