In 2017, the average farmer in the United States is in her late 50s, and much of this country’s farmland is at risk of development or buy-out for intensive monoculture. In many cases, as older farmers retire, younger ones aren’t taking their place. The process of acquiring arable land is not as simple as it used to be—and it’s especially daunting for first-generation farmers.
Tennessee farmers Heather Sevcik and Jon Ramirez, who are in their late 20s, say they won the bid on their property because the selling family appreciated their desire to farm the land—even though Sevcik and Ramirez’s bid was below the asking price.
Paying off student loans into their thirties or beyond, and managing mortgage payments on top of the other daunting start-up costs, risks, and regulations of a new farm, young farmers like Ramirez and Sevcik depend heavily on a full-time off-farm income. In this case, Sevcik works full-time as a midwife in midtown Nashville. Their need for that off-farm job (and the need for customers) forced them to search for a farm near a city, which in turn limited them to more expensive land prospects. Ramirez and Sevcik were able to afford their property through traditional loans thanks to Sevcik’s income and credit history, along with monetary gifts from family.
The most recent federal agriculture census showed that the number of new and beginning farmers in the United States declined by 28% between 2007 and 2012. USDA ramped up its programs for new farmers after that census was published, but the success of those programs won’t be known until the findings of the next agricultural census are released in 2019. The future of the small farmer in America may depend on those rare but determined individuals like Ramirez and Sevcik.
Thriving Earth Farm: Where Heather Sevcik and Jonathan Ramirez live and work.
Bell’s Bend: Location of a proposed $4 billion development project that was protested by locals wanting to preserve the area’s rural character.
Heritage Glen Farm: Where Meg and Harry Edwards live and work
Long Hungry Creek Farm: Where Jeff Poppen (also known as the Barefoot Farmer) lives and works.
Recent history of Bell’s Bend (Nashville Lifestyles magazine)
Michael Pollan on federal agriculture policy (The New York Times, 2008)
Profile of Jeff Poppen (The Mother Nature Network, 2015)
Diet for a Hot Planet by Anna Lappe
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All by Oran Hesterman
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James McWilliams
Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Nashville Eats by Jennifer Justus
“Words” by Jason Shaw
“Travel Light” by Jason Shaw
“Lullaby for Democracy” by Doctor Turtle
“Wingspan” by Blue Dot Sessions
Caroline Leland is a freelance writer/reporter based in Nashville, TN. Her work can be found on Nashville Public Radio, in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, in Our State magazine, and in a number of local Nashville publications.