Photo courtesy of Matt Kronschnabel
In January, Matt Kronschnabel, who graduated from UW-Madison in 2016, and three friends signed the deed to a four-acre organic farm in Viroqua, Wis. — in a region that saw the nation’s highest rate of farm bankruptcies last year, according to federal court data.
Kronschnabel’s farm, Circadian Organics, is run according to a community-supported agriculture model, or a CSA — meaning it will be funded in part by community investors. Their dividend? Kronschnabel’s organic and locally grown vegetables.
“I want to make a difference in my community, and trying to achieve a sustainable small-scale, organic farm is the best way for me to make that positive impact,” he said.
Kronschnabel and several other recent UW-Madison graduates are entering agriculture at a time when saturated markets and low commodity values sector-wide are shuttering family farms and driving young farmers away. Census data shows that the average age of farmers in the state has trended upward over the last decade, and that the number of people employed in the industry as a whole is shrinking.
Large-scale farms are growing in size but are relying on less labor, said Bruce Jones, UW-Madison professor of agriculture and applied economics. Increasingly, this has been achieved through farm consolidation and mechanization, which allows fewer farmers to operate more farmland.
“Their opportunity to be profitable is to become a low-cost producer, and to do that they exploit the capital they have to produce as much as they can, as cheaply as possible,” he said.
In contrast, Jones said farms operated on a CSA model tend to be much smaller in scale, rely on income besides crops and require a lot of labor. Farmers work closely with community investors and pay their local shareholders in produce. Their farms average anywhere between 10 and 30 acres.
Kronschnabel found that starting a CSA helped him establish his farm on a scale that was economically sustainable.
“It is very difficult to be a low-debt farmer, especially at first. We want to be farmers as soon as possible, and to rely on our farming income as soon as possible.”
But CSAs, which have traditionally occupied a niche market, are not exempt from the financial troubles that have plagued larger farms for the last three years. Demand for organic produce has driven up premiums on organically certified farmland, making it harder and more costly for young farmers to enter the market.
“The biggest challenge is acquiring affordable, organically certified land, and it’s harder still to find that near your market,” Kronschnabel said. “Unless you’re coming in with a lot of money, that acquisition will put you in the negative.”
For traditional Wisconsin farmers, borrowing is a way of life. In a good season, the initial investment required to raise animals or plant crops will pay off. But in a bad season, farmers can face bankruptcy and even foreclosure.
Millennials like Kronschnabel are less likely than any other generation to take financial risks, with the exception of loans, according to a 2017 survey by the National Association of Realtors.
“Borrowing money as a farmer is an enormous gamble,” Kronschnabel said. “You’re essentially betting against nature.”
When senior Charlie Koczela and 11 of his friends took a year off of school to start Nomad Farm in 2016, they relied on income from other jobs, crowdsourcing outlets like GoFundMe and CSA investments for funding.
Community investment helped Kronschnabel and Koczela divide both the costs and rewards of starting their farms between all of the involved operators and shareholders.
“Being cooperatively run means you don’t take on all of that risk on your own. Instead you’re building a community around it,” Kronschnabel said. “Risk and reward can be distributed equally and equitably.”
He contrasts the CSA model with bank or U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, which many in his parents’ generation turned to for loans. Those loans are typically issued to individual operators and backed against their farms. If farmers default, they can lose their land. Kronschnabel said he hopes that operating on a small scale means that he can avoid risky loans.
Entering a USDA loan program would go against much of the political ideology that inspired Koczela and his friends to begin farming in the first place. For Koczela, growing his own food is a way to remove himself from an agricultural and political system he doesn’t believe in. He sees unsustainable market practices as drivers of environmental degradation.
“Among the community who turns to small farms to solve systemic problems, they see the USDA as part of that problem, and I don’t blame them,” Koczela said. “Farming loan campaigns in the past have caused intense environmental and economic damage.”
Historically, farmers have tried to pay off loans by increasing their production, theoretically increasing their ability to make a profit. But when there is widespread economic downturn and many farmers expand their operations at once, overproduction only drives commodity prices lower and farmers spiral further into debt.
Koczela said that when production accelerates on such a large scale, environmental problems are practically inevitable. He points to events ranging from The Dust Bowl and The Great Depression to carbon and nutrient pollution as problems driven by cycles of desperation and overproduction.
For Kronschnabel, there are many reasons to avoid that type of debt, especially in the start-up phase of his CSA.
“A large part of what we want to do is to stay low-debt. We don’t want our hands to be tied, financially, and we don’t want to take those risks,” he said. “But mostly, we don’t want to be farming just to pay off the debt.”
Still, unless a prospective farmer can enter the market with money and capital in hand, Kronschnabel said people starting CSAs have a very hard time getting their feet off the ground.
“I want to make a difference in my community, and trying to achieve a sustainable small-scale, organic farm is the best way for me to make that positive impact.”
Kronschnabel said this financial barrier deters people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds from pursuing agriculture, and raises broader questions about access and inclusivity that apply to the entire organic movement.
“It is very difficult to be a low-debt farmer, especially at first. We want to be farmers as soon as possible, and to rely on our farming income as soon as possible,” Kronschnabel said. “Doing that without running into a ton of debt becomes a question of an economy of scale.”
More land trusts and equitable, responsible subsidy programs would make farming more accessible for more people, Kronschnabel said.
“If there were more groups investing in land and keeping it in the hands of responsible stewards and farmers, it would keep it away from large, monocultural industries and encourage better, more inclusive management,” he said. “Additionally, a lot of farming subsidies only make it into the hands of big industries, where they can do more damage than good.”
Koczela and Kronschnabel said that farming on a sustainable scale, both economically and environmentally, was one of the reasons they were attracted to agriculture initially.
“My wanting to farm came from a deep-seated hatred for institutional processes and things that are too big to fail,” Koczela said. “By farming, you feel like you’re really taking a part of the system for yourself. I think that idea is really attractive to young people who are politically and socially radical.”