by Claire Mesesan, communications manager at Iroquois Valley Farms
Few issues capture the complex space millennials occupy better than food and farming. At a time when commodity agriculture is pervasive – regenerative, organic agriculture is experiencing a renaissance spurred on by millennials. Much has been written about millennials, a generation that occupies a peculiar place in history: the systems previous generations created and grew up with are faltering. Climate change is a reality we must address. No matter what else is said about millennials – a generation this author belongs to – one truth is that we face deep existential turmoil. In spite of current and future turbulence, millennials remain optimistic in believing that people have the power to effect change. This is abundantly clear in organic agriculture.
Organic agriculture was just agriculture in the pre-World War II period, signified by a lack of chemicals – industrialized agriculture became the way of the future in the post-war period. Our experiments in industrial agriculture led to increased corporate control of the food industry, a decline in the number of farms and farmers, and much less diversity in agriculture. By contrast, organic agriculture operates on a smaller scale, relies on crop diversity and soil management practices for pest control, therefore prioritizing environmental health.
The move to regenerative organic agriculture is a conscious choice that views growing food as values-based work. It is no surprise that organic agriculture speaks to millennials who see climate change as a reality, exacerbated by industrial agriculture that causes environmental degradation through soil erosion, water contamination and aquifer depletion. It is up to millennials to respond to the existential threat of climate change. Here is a look at how millennials are responding through food.
Millennials are leading the change toward a more organic agricultural system, with over 50 percent actively incorporating organic foods in their diet. More broadly, millennials identify sustainability as a priority in what they purchase; in fact, millennials are the most willing of any generation to spend more on items and causes that align with their values. Millennials are using their purchasing power to buy from companies they perceive as environmentally friendly, or committed to social values, or on organic products. Essentially, personal values are increasingly reflected in spending patterns. In 2014, millennials represented 36 percent of the workforce; it will be 46 percent by 2020. The millennial influence on food is evident in the increase in organic, specialty products and local, farm-to-table restaurants. With such interest in more healthy agriculture from millennials, it follows that this generation is turning to sustainable, organic, regenerative farming as a career path.
According to the USDA, the average age of a farmer is 57; additionally, estimates suggest that a quarter of American farmers will retire by 2030. There is great need for young farmers. It is encouraging that young farmers are responding, motivated by environmental awareness, interest in local and specialty foods, and market opportunities. However, young farmers face barriers to entering organic farming. In a survey of more than 1,300 farmers, the National Young Farmers Coalition identified lack of capital and land access as the top two challenges for young farmers entering the field. Iroquois Valley Farms has uniquely positioned itself as an investment vehicle to support organic farmers, especially young farmers to access land and capital, which will enable the next generation to grow food sustainably.
To understand what makes Iroquois Valley Farms unique, it is important to understand the nature of the challenges faced by organic farmers of any generation. Land access is the base of any farm operation, but secure and supportive access to land is difficult to find. Most beginning farmers must rent land, as they cannot afford to purchase land. In fact, 70 percent of farmers 30 and under will rent land while only 37 percent of farmers over 30 years old, rent land. Long-term leases are rare and landowners willing to support an organic transition (the cost of already organic land can be prohibitive) are even more rare. The typical land lease to farmers is one year, which makes the prospect of transitioning land (a three year process) to organic discouraging. Furthermore, with the aging farming population, it is estimated that 400 million acres (70 percent) of farmland will change hands by 2030. Iroquois Valley Farms saw this challenging situation as an opportunity to provide long-term land access (with the option to eventually own the land) to organic farmers. Currently, the Company owns 32 farms (over 4,400 acres), financed four farms, and operates in eleven states. Iroquois Valley Farms leases 72 percent of its farm properties to millennial farmers.
In order to support more young farmers, Iroquois Valley Farms (http://iroquoisvalleyfarms.com) developed its successful Young Farmer Land Access program, which is specifically designed to buy/mortgage land for young farmers. Organic farming skews younger than the broader farming demographic. In working with family farms, Iroquois Valley sees that often, the next generation is most likely to transition to organic. To further support farmers in such transitions, Iroquois Valley will launch their Soil Restoration Notes (coming in 2017). This new fixed income product will funnel investment capital toward supporting farmers during the three transition years. The transition period represents an especially difficult time – farmers use organic practices, but they are unable to market their crops organically. Iroquois Valley’s Soil Restoration Notes will help offset the strain of these years by providing much needed agronomic and financial support. For young organic farmers beginning their careers, access to supportive capital can make a critical difference.
Socially responsible investors should recognize organic agriculture as an important space for many reasons: the opportunity to enliven rural communities; increase access to fresh, local foods; and to support farmers regenerating soil and protecting the environment. To enable broader participation in the socially responsible investing community, Iroquois Valley Farms will transition from a Limited Liability Company (LLC) to a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) – this new structure is the first step for the Company’s plan to open its investment offerings beyond the world of accredited investors. In 2017, Iroquois Valley wants to create more investment opportunities for millennials to support their organic farmer peers.
Millennial investors belong to a demographic familiar with the divest/invest movement – they belong to a generation skeptical of finance, after having grown up in the Great Recession. Millennial investors are effectively leading the alternative investment movement and believe in the power of putting money, or conversely withholding money, into causes. It is evident by the focus on money in politics, called into question largely by millennial voters, that this generation believes that where money goes or comes from matters. Growing up in economic and environmental uncertainty clearly shaped the investment mindset of millennials. Iroquois Valley’s transition to a REIT structure is a strategic decision to enable millennial investors to participate in creating a more healthy and diverse agricultural system. The Company’s inclusive model allows the next generation of both organic farmers and investors to impact American agriculture in its capacity to combat climate change.
Article by Claire Mesesan, Communications Manager at Iroquois Valley Farms
Claire completed her bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and French from Loyola University Chicago in 2014. Within philosophy, Claire gravitated toward the field of environmental ethics; this culminated in writing an independently designed thesis analyzing the socio-political and economic effects of alternative organic agriculture practices in Cuba. After graduation, Claire spent a year in Madison, WI working as an AmeriCorps Farm-to-School educator. There, she taught elementary school children about food – how it grows, who grows it, and how it gets from the farm to our table.
She is thrilled to serve as Communications Manager at Iroquois Valley Farms, where her work contributes to creating a more sustainable, just, and empowering food system. Claire resides in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago where she spends her free time creating urban garden spaces and art.
Top photo: The Ambriole Family is from a multi-generational farming family, now operating their own 1,000+ acre organic farm in Indiana. Working with Iroquois Valley Farms has allowed the Ambriole family to scale up their business. – courtesy of Kim Hitzfield