The Millennial Farmer: Balancing Crops, Student Loans And Social Media

Jul 5, 2017

Farming in Vermont is approaching a crossroads: The current generation of American farmers is nearing retirement. But for some young people looking to follow in those footsteps, financial barriers make a future in the field less affordable.

Taylor Hutchison is the Pinterest-perfect image of a young farmer; her freckled nose sticks out from underneath the brim of a soil-covered trucker hat.

She looks the part, but many of her peers are twice her age or older. According to data from the USDA, the average American farmer is around 58 years old.

While a lot of people her age are spending their money on farmers markets and co-ops for their whole food fixes, Hutchison figured, why not just make a career out of eating well?

“In farming you have to consider lifestyle as part of your profit,” she said, standing by her evenly spaced rows of greens. “So we eat better than most of my millennial friends who I know – we like to sit down for dinner and say ‘if we went to a restaurant and we were eating all organic local produce that was cooked in this beautiful way, we couldn't afford it’” she joked, “but we're able to eat like that all the time.”

For Hutchison, who is about to turn 30, it's important to count way of life as part of the farmer salary.

Taylor Hutchison with her dog, Spud, on Footprint Farm. She and her fiance have been operating the farm for the past five years.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / Vermont Public Radio

She and her fiance Jake Mendell have been running Footprint Farm in Starksboro for five years.

The most recent census data from 2012 showed there was an uptick in farmers under the age of 35, like Hutchison and Mendell.

And as with a lot of farmers, community is important to Hutchison. But for a young farmer in 2017, unlike past generations, that means a robust social media presence.

“I consider our farm as part of a nationwide community, and a lot of that community is connected through Instagram,” she said. Just as some farmers travel down the road to help a neighbor build a new structure, Hutchinson said, she learned to build the hoop houses over her crops from another farmer on Instagram.

“I feel a little bit hypocritical because I was one of those people that was like 'I'm getting off Facebook, I'm not doing this social media thing anymore.' But the farming community on it is amazing. Most of the things we do are because we saw it on Instagram,” she said.

Or, for example, Hutchison says she gets a lot of information from her favorite podcast, called Farmer to Farmer Podcast.

Taylor Hutchison fixes a structure she learned to build from another farmer's Instagram account. She said that when it recently collapsed, she reached out to her internet community to help coach her to rebuild it.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / Vermont Public Radio

Hutchison says she got lucky – she and Mendell got the 30 acres of land to build their farm from Mendell's parents. But ask just about anyone who is hoping to get into the business and they'll tell you land prices are one of the biggest barriers.

“I haven't heard anybody who hasn't weirdly met a rich guy at a bar who decided to fund their farm or met somebody who took them under their wing and helped them learn on their generations-old farm and they somehow ended up owning it,” Hutchison reflected.

As of 2012, over 30-percent of farmland was owned by someone aged 65 or older, which means a lot of that land will be up for sale in the next few decades.

In Vermont, there are organizations working to connect young wannabe farmers with that available land.

But with young college graduates facing massive student loan debt, keeping that land in agriculture could be challenge.

Lisa and Keith Drinkwine, who own and operate Flatlander Farm, talk to Congressman Peter Welch about their student loan debt, which makes it difficult financially to start a farm.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / Vermont Public Radio

Just a few miles away from Hutchinson's farm, in Richmond, Congressman Peter Welch chatted with Keith and Lisa Drinkwine at a recent roundtable discussion for Young Farmers.

The thirty-something couple owns and operates Flatlander Farm.

Keith Drinkwine says student debt was one of his biggest barriers to building a career in farming. He says a big chunk of their monthly budget is tied up in student loan payments.

“It doesn't keep me up at night because I think my liberal arts education, although it wasn't in agriculture, absolutely paved the road for me to be a successful farmer and a successful business owner,” he said. “But it's a real honest thing, we have our money tied up going back to student loans."

"[My education] absolutely paved the road for me to be a successful farmer and a successful business owner. But it's a real honest thing, we have our money tied up going back to student loans." — Keith Drinkwine, owner of Flatlander Farm

To help young people in similar situations, Welch is co-sponsoring a bill called the Young Farmers Success Act. If passed, it would include farmers in student loan forgiveness programs currently in place that give breaks to people in public service jobs such as doctors and teachers.

“The Young Farmers Success Act would include young farmers, who are graduating from college, they have student loan debt they want to go into farming but the burden of student debt prohibits them from doing it,” Welch explained to a group gathered in Richmond.

“We need farmers!” he said emphatically.

The legislation has bi-partisan support from representatives all over the country.

But until it is passed, Lisa and Keith Drinkwine told Congressman Welch, they'll just keep doing what farmers do best: working hard.

“You have to fail and try and try and you keep growing and learning from those struggles and maybe you fail, but next year you can -- you learn and do it better and it's more successful” Lisa Drinkwine told Congressman Welch.

Her husband, Keith Drinkwine added: “[You’re] always learning and building on previous years so it's just a process. It's just the journey really.”

Vermont Farms: A Shifting Landscape explores Vermont's agricultural economy with the people who wake up early every day to try to make their living of the land. Click here to explore the continuing series.