As the U.S. farmer population continues to age, farm succession remains a challenge—although some family farms are making it work.
There is hardly a more well-known or well-respected name among organic farmers than Eliot Coleman (pictured above, at right). His 1989 book, The New Organic Grower, gave an entire generation of beginning sustainable farmers the tools and methods to make an honest living in agriculture where few resources existed before. And his Four Seasons Farm in Harborside, Maine has stood as a successful model of cold climate winter vegetable production. But his success was not enough to entice his daughter Clara Coleman (pictured above-left) to follow in his footsteps. At least not at first.
“I spent most of my life trying to get away from farming,” she admits.
Growing up, she witnessed her father “working constantly,” and feared becoming a farmer would keep her from being fully engaged with her own family. Moreover, she says that when she was young, “farming was not sexy.” There was a general stigma about being a farmer that didn’t make her want to learn because it was “not something that was valued.”
The world has began to appreciate organic farming more in the last two decades, and Coleman also began to see agriculture differently as she approached motherhood. As much as she feared that farming would take up all her time, she didn’t want her children to grow up without a strong connection to where their food came from. So after her second child was born in 2007, Coleman began farming where she lived in Colorado as an experiment. She found that she was able to balance work and family life.
“That was the turning point,” says Coleman, who realized then, “I needed to farm with my dad. I needed to actually build those connections between generations and have that opportunity before it’s too late.” So in 2016, she moved her family back to Four Season Farm to work alongside her father, and slowly take over the land.
On small farms around the country, second generation farmers like Clara Coleman are significant in that they become a bridge between the brutal first steps of a farm and its potential wonder years—the years when farm debt is relieved, the equipment paid for, and the systems and markets established. But as Clara’s story shows, second-generation farmers still have strong hesitations about becoming farmers themselves, even coming from successful farms.
“It’s a significant challenge,” says Jerry Cosgrove, director of the Farm Legacy Program at American Farmland Trust (AFT). “The assets themselves are valuable, but it can also be an interpersonal challenge; in many cases you’re not just transferring assets, but a business as well as a lifestyle—and when people live on the farm, it’s also a residence.”