Monday, March 12, 2012

Youth Renewing the Countryside

By Jan Joannides, Executive Director, Renewing the Countryside

Young people are vital to maintaining vibrant, rural areas.
We need them for their ideas, their energy, and their ability to see things differently. We need them to steward our land and our history. We need them to grow food, harvest energy, and manage our forests. We need them to help create a new, more sustainable, more just economy.

These young leaders are contributing to their home places
by participating in New York's Sustainable Energy Development (SED).
(photo by Kevin Schulte)

Combine the lack of ready-made jobs in rural areas with young people’s zest to explore the world, and it is not surprising that many of our youth head off to urban centers for education, employment, adventure, and excitement. It is not their departure that is of concern, but the fact that most do not return.

While rural communities lament the loss of their young, I believe that they often are partly responsible. They frequently foster a climate that deters young people from joining their community. Sometimes it’s a patronizing attitude towards those who return; other times it’s a closed mind to new ideas or new leaders. On the farm, it can be the many barriers to land ownership for young farmers.

Supporting New & Young Farmers in the Countryside

Many farmland owners in the United States are well into retirement age, and there is going to be a big shift in what the next generation of farmers looks like. In Iowa, for example, nearly 30% of farmland is owned by people over the age of 70. To those of us at Renewing the Countryside, this looks like an opportunity for a new generation of young farmers to step up into the tractor seat and start farming. And we better get moving!

A few things must happen along the way to make this shift:
  1. Aspiring farmers need a foundation in, well... farming. Not just production techniques, nor horticulture or even animal sciences per se, but also education in conservation ethics, sustainability, and humanity.
  2. Existing farmers and farmland owners need to recognize that their entering into farming was aided by others, often through inheritance. They have worked hard and deserve to realize a profit from their investment, but they should also bear in mind that they could aid a beginning farmer in much the same way their parents did for them years ago--even if that new farmer isn’t one of their own family.
  3. Consumers must demand food that is higher quality. The U.S. is wealthy by almost any standard, but our diet is dismal. We deserve better food.
Over the past decade, there has been a new surge in interest in farming and much of it isn’t coming from farm country. This growth is largely in the small and diversified farming sector. The majority of these new small farms contributing to the local & regional food movement are in or near urban centers. At the same time, growth is also taking place in industrial scale monoculture and confinement protein operations. Today it only requires one farmer per 740 acres compared, to a century ago when the ratio was closer to one farmer per 30 acres. 
“Renewing the Countryside” in Action
Renewing the Countryside has been working with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) to help bring out aspiring young farmers through our joint effort: Young Organic Stewards (YOS). YOS not only provides education on the practice and business of farming but also provides a path for young farmers to band together and support each other through social media and in-person events.
Renewing the Countryside is also partnering with the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota in an effort to encourage existing farmers to plan for their eventual farm transition to the next generation. We are at the beginning of a three-tiered project to prepare farmers to transition off their land, identify good emerging farmers to co-farm with a goal of farm ownership, and developing a new model for bringing new farmers online with access to land and micro financing.
Beyond the Farm
But it won’t just be these new farmers alone who move back and give new life to rural communities - it will be artists, teachers, shop keepers, and engaged community members from every corner of our culture. The good news is that not all smart, hardworking young people land in Seattle, Atlanta, or other urban hubs. A growing number are embracing life in rural communities and small towns. 

Many young people take advantage of rural "amenities"
like backcountry trails and adventures.
(photo by Leslie Ross)

We set out to find them and we were inspired—not only by how many we found, but by their ambition and dedication. Renewing the Countryside has been telling the stories of the countryside for over a decade. In that tradition, we recently published a book with Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) titled “Youth: Renewing the Countryside”.
Many of the inspiring stories are about young farmers, like small grain farmers in Montana and value-added dairy products sold from an on-farm shop. Many more of the stories are about the young people in rural places building on their history and culture. Others are creating uniquely, 21st century opportunities like renewable energy businesses or Internet-based companies. Some are fighting for environmental or social justice. Many have found a foothold in building a stronger, healthier food system.
Yet a small town with a gas station, church, and a couple of bars are not enough to attract youth back to the countryside. Young people want to feel welcome and supported by their communities. And once they get there, they want communities with things to do and a family atmosphere.
To address these issues, Renewing the Countryside has been working in Southeastern Minnesota on just this issue. Efforts include helping small towns recognize and foster their interdependence and not their provincialism. Communities need to work toward a vibrant, warm and inviting place as a way to encourage growth in both business investment and population.
What are your communities doing to attract and support younger people? Who are the young entrepreneurs in your communities? How are they doing? Why are they there? What do they add?

Photos provided by Renewing the Countryside.
About the Author:
Jan Joannides is the Executive Director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside. For the past ten years, she has been an advocate and organizer for rural communities and citizens who are working to stimulate economic growth and enhance their communities through sustainable uses of their landscapes and resources. Prior to her work with Renewing the Countryside, Jan coordinated the Community Assistantship Program at the University of Minnesota and helped found and directed the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.
Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

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