You have probably heard this statistic before...
The average age of farmers and ranchers in the US is 65 and climbing.
This means the art of farming and ranching is fading in our country, rather than being passed down to the next generation.
Some of the biggest reasons for this trend are:
-lack of access to productive land and water
-lack of available capital it takes to start up a conventional food production operation
-high risk associated with running an Agriculture-Based business
This past week I had the unique opportunity to participate in a Land Access Summit to help lay the groundwork for a Beginning Farmer/Rancher Program on private land in Buffalo, Wyoming.
My friend Caitlin Youngquist with UW Extension brought a group of professionals together with a facilitator, to discuss the logistics of such a program. These professionals included folks from community colleges, University of Wyoming Extension, Land Owners Alliance, and the Hughes Charitable Foundation.
I was invited in order to provide some perspective as a first generation farmer/rancher who built my own business from scratch, without owning any land, and also to represent the Wyoming Food Coalition's interests and supporting capacity for this program.
As someone who struggles personally with the land-access issue on a daily basis, I was very excited to be able to participate in this discussion. I can only hope that what we worked on will make getting into food production easier and more affordable for other up-and-coming producers in the future.
Wyoming currently doesn't have a solid system for bringing new food producers into our local market and economy. I can tell you from the past 10 years of working with farmers and ranchers across the state, raising and selling food in Wyoming is a nitty gritty business.
The tragedy of land in this state and others across the West, is that a lot of productive land is worth more as vacation homes or second or third residences than as an agricultural parcel.
When a large piece of land is divided up into tracts and sold, water rights are lost, cross-fences are sometimes installed, and ag-operations cease completely.
Farmers and ranchers are working on creative models to help put lands bought for secondary residences or vacation homes, back to work as ag-lands so that both purposes can be served simultaneously and in some cases synergistically.
Other states around the country have existing programs like land-links matching farmers and farms or beginning farmer and rancher incubator programs that help new producers get started with less risk.
Wyoming is behind the ball on this front.
At a conference about local food that took place about a year ago, Wayne Hughes of the Hughes Charitable Foundation heard that one of the largest obstacles for producers in the state is accessing land to grow food on, and he said- "well, let's change that."
He offered up three potential parcels of 40 acres on his newly acquired land in Buffalo, Wyoming to start a beginning farmer/rancher incubator program for three individuals at a time, with the goal of creating a program that could be replicated on private lands throughout the state. Caitlin Youngquist was up to the task of organizing this effort.
On May 11th our day began with a ranch tour of the property in Buffalo, with a focus on the three designated land parcels and the provided housing for the future incubator students.
We then proceeded to the Johnson County Public Library to hash out logistics and details for a little over 4 hours.
The day flew by!
What a room full of electric passion and ideas for the future of food and resource management in the state.
I felt lucky to be a part of it.
It feels good to hear others prioritizing the future of local food in our state.
I can't wait to see where this program leads!
On the way home I listened to Caroline Nelson's podcast episode of her podcast Chews Wisely on land access. I didn't plan to, it just popped up!
What a serendipitous surprise!
If you want to listen to the episode, it's called Ranching Without a Ranch and you can find it on most podcast host servers.
A lot of the challenges Caroline talks about are similar challenges to the ones we face.
Even now that we own our own home-base, we still run our animals on leased land for a good chunk of the year because the 30 acres we own is nowhere near enough land to sustain our livestock operation (mostly because we have no irrigation abilities.) We simply added the resilience of a fallback place in case we lose a land lease, or an emergency happens. We now have somewhere to bring our animals, so we don't have to sell them all off when tough times hit.
Participating in the Land-Access Summit and listening to Caroline's Episode on Land Access inspired me to create an episode of my own on land access and the ways farmers and ranchers in our local food family are tackling this challenge.
I can't wait to publish it!
We are taking advantage of the GrowinG Wyoming Beginning Farmer and Rancher program through the University of Wyoming this year. We get our first intern through this program next week!
I can't wait to introduce you to her, and hopefully I'll get to wrangle her in for the episode as well.
What questions do you have about Land Access?
I would love to hear them, so I can make sure to get those answered for you.
Have a great rest of your week!
-BJ, Chris, Peter, and the Taste of the Wind Crew