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On a mission to engage and educate the next generation of farmers

On a mission to engage and educate the next generation of farmers

A key to securing access to healthy food is having enough farmers to grow it--and on that front, there may be challenges ahead. According to the USDA, the average age of farmers in the U.S. has consistently grown for the past 30 years, reaching 58.3 in 2012. And only 6 percent of farmers are younger than 35.

One program working to engage and educate young people in food production is Farmshare Austin. Its immersive FarmerStarter program provides hands-on and classroom training on organic and sustainable growing methods, as well as business and financial skills. Vice president of the board, Adam Butler, who's also co-founder of Austin-based branding firm The Butler Bros., and Executive Director Taylor Cook, shared some thoughts on securing the good food future.

What are the biggest barriers you see to getting our younger generations interested in and involved with farming?

A first barrier is simply exposure. Most Americans today do not grow up on a farm or even live in a household that has a vegetable garden. Without role models involved in food production many kids and young people don’t even consider farming as a career option. If the average kid does become interested in a career in sustainable agriculture, the next barrier is education and experience. People without the traditional family farm background and for whom a conventional university ag program is not a good fit may struggle to get the skills and knowledge needed to become a successful farmer. That is the gap that Farmshare Austin’s Farmer Starter six-month educational program is designed to address.

The Farmshare Austin model emphasizes the need for collaboration to improve food access. What other people/organizations/resources play a key role in bringing healthier food to more people?

Expo West appearance:
Organic Demand Growing Faster Than Supply: Can the Tables Turn?
Thursday, March 10
12 - 1 p.m.
Marriott, Grand Ballroom F

Farmshare is fortunate to have a working educational farm which produces a surplus of food. This puts us in a unique position for a farm in central Texas where we can partner with other organizations to supply produce to innovative food access programs at cost. Our primary outlet is a coalition of community farm stands that are managed by a diverse group of organizations including schools, PTAs, community groups, and other local nonprofits including the Sustainable Food Center and SafePlace a domestic violence shelter. The communities that these groups work in are all different, but the goal is the same: to reduce geographic and financial barriers that prevent people from choosing healthy food. Since this is a such a fundamental and growing need, almost any type of organization may recognize the connection between improved nutrition and their mission.   

Do you think this model is scalable to other locations? 

Yes, but community support is absolutely critical to starting an ambitious project like Farmshare’s. Anywhere there is a community that values local sustainable agriculture and understands the connections to environmental and population health, there is a community with a significant interest in training the next generation of organic farmers to meet those needs.

How can communities address the cost barrier of organic food, and/or organic food production?

If communities value affordable organic produce they have to shop, advocate and give in a way that is aligned with those values. The margins for most organic farmers are very small, so if someone values organic produce the first step is to purchase it when possible to ensure the viability of existing organic producers. It is also important to advocate for local, state and federal policies that level the playing field for organic growers. If organic food is something you believe in, you can ask that publicly funded institutions share those values too and advocate for the inclusion of organic produce in public and institutional purchasing. Finally, community support is critically important to nonprofit organizations that address barriers to organic food access. Give back as a volunteer and donor.  

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank our Executive Director Taylor Cook and Farm Manager/Educator Lorig Hawkins for their tireless work. Lesser people would not prevail in the headwinds they have faced in leading our young organization towards impact and sustainability. And I’d like to thank Dr. Bronner’s, Clif Bar, Simply Organic/Frontier Coop, Nutiva and Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence for their critical gifts over the last several years. They are great examples of companies that are investing at the grassroots level in the food future they wish for us all.

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