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Young farmers seek solutions to entry barriers

Young and beginning farmers face many challenges, including access to land, financial capital, technical knowledge and support, social networks, adequate labor, marketing experience, health insurance, and childcare.

University of Illinois Extension is wading through the challenges with these farmers to better understand the challenges and work together toward solutions.

“This generation of farmers is mission driven, including protecting the environment,” says Joseph Malual, Extension specialist in community and economic development. “Land stewardship is a big deal.”

In a recent survey of emerging farmers in Northern Illinois, Malual discovered great interest from the group in marketing vegetables and meat products directly to local people. The problem is, there isn’t a local market for their goods.

“Many rely on the Chicago, Madison, and Dubuque markets to sell their products,” says Grant McCarty, Illinois Extension local food systems and small farms educator serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago counties.

Jen Schultz, Extension program coordinator also serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago counties, is collecting the data through multiple interviews with specialty crop growers, livestock producers, and value-added commodity operators in the region. Schultz says these innovative entrepreneurs are turning to topic-based social media groups to network with others to solve problems they encounter.

The challenges are tough to overcome.

“These farmers are returning to help their family with farming after college because they enjoy rural life,” Malual says. Finding land to buy or rent and securing the financial capital to operate are barriers.

“Almost all have a job outside of the farm to survive,” Malual says. “Those who do secure farmland and operating money often can’t find additional people to work, so they have to learn all aspects of the job.”

In the coming year, Malual and a team of Extension professionals will work with farmers to strategize solutions. “Extension needs to innovate to stay relevant by developing context-specific educational programming that empowers these farmers to develop financially viable and sustainable farms,” Malual says.

“Our work to help young farmers is important to food production,” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, University of Illinois associate dean and Illinois Extension director. “We need to understand the barriers to entering the profession so that we can lower the hurdles to better support the future of Illinois agriculture.”

This project is funded by Illinois Extension and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, with financial support from University of Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program.

First launched in 2018, Collaboration Grants are part of an ongoing effort to connect campus-based researchers and Illinois Extension field staff to do applied research projects that will improve the quality of life of Illinois residents. The grants focus on addressing critical issues in food, economy, environment, community, and health.