The courageous optimism of young farmers

Small, family farms are facing intense challenges, but the next generation of farmers are determined to succeed.

For most independent farmers, sustainable farming is a fundamental choice, regardless of the hardships they may face.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

Like many of her generation, April Wilson left her family’s farm in Iowa after graduating from college to pursue a different path. But after 14 years in the hospitality industry, she still couldn’t shake the feeling of being a stranger in her own life. When her father started talking about retiring, she decided to come home. “Farming is a part of who I am,” she says. “Raising hogs was the heartbeat of the farm because that was my grandfather’s love and my father’s love. I wanted to keep that legacy going.”

Now, however, she faces an uncertain future. More than half of U.S. farms lost money this year, and the average farm was operating at a loss. Small farms, most of which are family-owned and operated, confront considerable challenges including changing weather patterns, farm consolidation, and an aging population. Over the last 12 years, U.S. agriculture lost 40 times more farmers than it gained, challenging the future of small and midsized farms throughout the country.

Farming is facing intense economic challenges, but it’s essential to the future of a healthy and resilient planet. The Wilson family’s Seven W farm is a model for sustainable practices that include rotational grazing, cover crops, and crop rotation. They even maintain wildlife refuge areas. After so many years in the city, Wilson appreciates her access to fresh organic food—she can pluck lettuce for her salad right out of the ground. At a time when many farms are expanding and becoming more mechanized, her family’s small organic farm is an outlier. “We’re the oddballs,” she says with pride.

But they’re also part of a likeminded community. For the past 20 years, the Wilsons have raised hogs for Niman Ranch, a network of more than 740 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers who adhere to some of the strictest animal welfare protocols in the industry.

Kelsey Kruse and Dane Kruse are two faces of the next generation of farmers striving to protect the future of real food.
Kelsey Kruse and Dane Kruse are two faces of the next generation of farmers striving to protect the future of real food.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

The Niman Ranch Next Generation Foundation awards scholarships to the children of their farmers and ranchers in an effort to support young farmers and encourage them to return after college.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a major donor to the scholarship fund, which aligns with the company’s emphasis on locally and ethically sourced, healthy ingredients. “Farmers committed to farming in a sustainable and ethical way need help to have a chance to succeed – both for the sake of the future of real nutritious food and the communities that rely on those farms,” said Brian Niccol, Chief Executive Officer of Chipotle.

Elle Gadient is a past scholarship recipient who went on to study environmental science and continues to advocate for sustainable and humane farming methods. The Gadients have always cared for their animals like family members. It’s not unusual for them to bring a cold little pig into the house to warm up in the winter or turn on the sprinklers to cool off the pigs in summer. Gadient even has a favorite cow, Sugar Plum, who has a penchant for apples and comes when she’s called.

Gadient is now a Niman Ranch young farmer advocate. “My passion is sustainable farming, taking care of the environment, and supporting family farms,” she says. “Because families really care. This is our livelihood. It’s not a career. It’s every part of what we’re living.”

Michael Mardesen is another past recipient of the Next Generation Scholarship. Before he left his family’s farm to study veterinary medicine at Iowa State, he was interviewed in a video by Niman Ranch. His gray eyes are focused just off camera, his cheeks ruddy from the early winter air. “My dad and I do a lot of the work, but it’s not a one- or two-person show. We all have this one goal of making sure this place is still running.”

Mardesen grew up on the farm his grandfather built named A-Frame Acres for the little huts given to each farrowing sow and her litter of piglets. There are no confinement pens here. The pigs nestle into their straw at night and roam free in the fields during the day. The Mardesens care about their environmental impact as much as their animals, so they use sustainable farming methods like crop rotation, minimum tillage, and grassy waterways.

Maintaining a small, sustainable farm hasn’t been easy, but Mardesen always understood its value. “My dad and I, we never really played catch, we never really did the whole fishing, typical father-son relationship. But we’ve been able to work together,” he says in the video. “I’ve been able to watch him go through his struggles and hardships, and that’s helped me deal with mine. It’s one thing to read about people dealing with something tough in a book or see it or hear in the news, but when you see it firsthand and live it, and you see the expression in his eyes, to watch that and learn that lesson is something special. It’s something unique that you don’t get just playing catch.”

Mardesen recently completed his veterinary degree and returned to the farm after eight years away. But he, like both of his parents, has an off-farm job, which is increasingly common. “It gets tough,” he says. “There aren’t enough revenue streams to feed all the mouths.”

When family farms can’t survive, their disappearance erodes rural economies and breaks up rural communities. But there’s hope. The number of young farmers increased between 2012 and 2017, suggesting that the next generation is committed to the industry, despite challenges such as land access, labor shortages, lack of health insurance, and student loan debt.

In addition to supporting the Next Generation Scholarship, Chipotle has big plans to help young farmers succeed. The company recently announced several new initiatives, including 3-year contracts for farmers under age 40 who meet certain requirements, increasing its already substantial local sourcing in 2020, and start-up grants in partnership with the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation. Beginning on “Farmer Friday” on December 6, 2019, one dollar from every entrée purchased online will go toward start-up grants, up to $250,000.

“The number-one thing I think a young farmer needs is a chance,” says Mardesen in the video. “We have what it takes. We’ve got the brains, we have the creativity, we have the willpower and the strong back. The most important thing we need right now is a chance and an opportunity to excel.” Now, it seems, that chance is here.

Learn more about how Chipotle is leading change and how you can help.

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