It’s a late fall evening in 2019 and we have harvested more squash, zucchini, carrots, bolita beans, and blue corn than I imagined possible for this small lot that is about an eighth of an acre. I have several friends helping me pick the crops because I’m healing from an inguinal hernia surgery and not allowed to lift more than six pounds. It’s a beautiful sight and I am in awe of my first season growing. This moment further confirms my desire to work with the land and I see how seeds, soil and water are defining who I want to be. I see my friends working in the field and know that for many of them having their own land to tend to will unlikely ever happen, so they get invited to grow with us on our land. As a young aspiring acequiera and land-based Taosena in New Mexico and a Land Advocacy Fellow with the National Young Farmers Coalition, I recognize that the 2023 Farm Bill will determine U.S. land policy more than any other policy decision over the next decade. It will set the stage for how our communities use the land they are rooted in and will decide who has access to that land.
As an aspiring farmer-grower I have had the privilege accessing familial land that was fallow for decades. I transitioned from violence prevention work to a farmer apprenticeship program with the New Mexico Acequia Association’s Sembradores Program. Pursuing my desire to learn to cultivate and care for the land I grew-up in was possible because my parents had a small parcel of land with water rights, I had a free and culturally relevant farmer training, and I did not have student loans to repay. Additionally, I could rely on my neighbors who cherish land-based living. They’ve loaned me their time and equipment to establish my small parcel. In time, I would like to expand on what I do, and have a sufficient amount of acreage to grow blue corn, squash, sweet peas, beans, avas, garlic and various root vegetables, and raise livestock for my family and close neighbors. I’m years away from such a dream. I still need the means to acquire irrigable lands, reasonable equipment, and infrastructure to eventually have a viable operation that could employ a small team – all in hopes of contributing to our food system with fresh food and value added products and sustaining cultural practices.
Unfortunately, stories like mine are unique, a young woman with land access and water rights is not at all common in Taos county. The larger picture of young farmers is one of obstacles and hurdles that are discouraging. Many young(er) agriculturalists in our area do not have any land access due to the extremely high costs of agricultural lands, or if they do, they have costly leases and difficulties securing water—which means most of us have second or third jobs.
My path to becoming a small farmer-grower is very privileged and it is why I write and choose to join a national effort to address this issue—because it should not be this hard for the next generation of farmers and ranchers to be in the field. But it is, and for a variety of reasons.
Research from the USDA shows that across the country, the current generation of farmers is aging out of the profession–the average farmer in the U.S. is nearly 60 years old–while prime farmland is being lost to development at a rate of more than 2,000 acres per day. Over the next twenty years of my life, nearly half of U.S. farmland is expected to change hands, but young farmers are leaving agriculture because they cannot secure land. Why is this? According to the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers), finding affordable land to buy is the number one reason farmers are leaving agriculture, and the primary barrier preventing aspiring farmers from getting started.
To understand the current challenges facing young farmers, it is important to understand the historical context. For generations, public policy has facilitated the dispossession of millions of acres from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). Through policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Homestead Acts of the mid-1800s, the revocation of Field Order No. 15, and the Alien Land Laws of the early 1900s, among others, Congress has been responsible for the dispossession of hundreds of millions of acres from Indigenous people and other people of color, while facilitating land ownership and access for white Americans.
As a result, white individuals now account for 95 percent of all farmers, own 98 percent of farmland, and receive the vast majority of agriculture-related financial assistance. Since the policies of the New Deal-era, lawmakers have shifted support away from farmers and towards corporate interests.
When I reflect on peers who want to be in the field and around the country- especially women, Native relatives, and African Americans, whose families have long standing expertise and knowledge of the land, to those who I currently see being cultivators, there’s a racial discrepancy- especially for our region that’s historically Puebloan and Hispanic. I have been in agricultural spaces where the default leans to white knowledge, expertise, practice, and in some instances gate keeps access to heritage seed, resources, grant funding, and opportunities.
If the social complexities of land access aren’t difficult enough, now we face the impacts of climate change. Extreme and unpredictable weather events, increasing pests and invasive species, persistent drought, and natural disasters are making the learning curve much harder. The collective knowledge of land and water helps us make decisions, yet, it is more frequent that experienced agriculturalists are expressing that acequia irrigation systems are quickly changing and growing seasons are not what they used to be. We can learn together, adapt where we can, and preserve and restore what land and water we have– this gives me hope and reassurance to keep going. Still, the reality is much bigger than our watershed. Some ditches will go dry and there will be nothing we can do about them other than grieve. This is why I continue to build relationships with my neighbors and am stepping out of my comfort zone to uplift what is possible for future generations. Policy has shaped the present reality and must be part of building a more equitable farming future. We need a 2023 Farm Bill that encourages climate resilient practices and secures our farmland for the next generation.
I joined the National Young Farmers Coalition’s Land Advocacy Fellowship along with 99 other farmers and ranchers from across the country because we are working for bold change. The Coalition’s One Million Acres for the Future Campaign is calling on Congress to make an historic investment of $2.5 billion in equitable access to land the 2023 Farm Bill. This investment could make one million acres of land accessible to a new generation of farmers.
We believe that policies implemented through the 2023 Farm Bill can help to ensure that valuable agricultural land is not lost and that access to it is equitable for my generation and those to come. I encourage policymakers to see the upcoming farm bill as an opportunity to make historic investments that: Help farmers compete in the real estate market by more appropriate and quicker credit options, including an FSA pre-approval mechanism.
Invest in voluntary, community-led farmland protection that keeps land in the hands of growers; specifically, ensure the buy-protect-sell mechanism works for growers within the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and prioritize funding for projects that protect affordability.
Prevent land loss in communities of color, particularly at the time of farm transition; specifically, continue investing in the Heirs’ Property Relending Program.
As a part of Young Farmers’ One Million Acres for the Future campaign, I am asking my Members of Congress Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, and Representatives Melanie Stansbury, Teresa Leger- Fernandez, and Gabe Vasquez, to pass a 2023 Farm Bill that makes this historic investment in equitable land access. We need to actively remove the roadblocks that are keeping young farmers off the land. Secure, equitable access to farmland is an issue that impacts us all, and the future of our food and agriculture systems. All of our voices are important in calling on Congress to create a 2023 Farm Bill that supports young farmers. To get involved with the campaign and receive action alerts, sign up here: p2a.co/land.