Ecosystem Services in Working Lands: US Northeast

preservation programs, an increasingly precarious economic, social, and environmental context makes agriculture a difficult industry for well-established small-scale farmers, let alone prospective small-scale farmers, foresters, and aquaculturists who are trying to develop their farms and businesses. While changing the macro-economic context for farmers in the U.S. Northeast is not a reasonable goal for any individual policy or program, it is possible to think about policies and programs that protect farmers, especially young farmers, from climatic and economic uncertainties at the same time. This requires big- picture thinking about and research into critical issues beyond but not unrelated to ecosystem services. In the context of increasing labor precarity in the US, especially among young people, the activation energy and resources required to enter the field of agriculture alone is often a monumental hurdle, never mind the challenge of getting training, obtaining health care, and arranging child care, among other things. For young people interested in working on farms to gain experience, low wages, limited benefits and seasonality all introduce a significant amount of precarity into agriculture as a long-term livelihood prospect. For young people interested in owning and operating a farm, the cost of securing land is often prohibitive as are the perennial concerns of affordable healthcare for individuals and/or childcare for families. There are a number of programs and policies that could overcome these obstacles, like offering free health care to all farm workers or subsidizing small-farm owner salaries. On-the-job certification, training, and professional development also could be huge incentives — so could a program that grants agricultural land to farm workers with 10+ years of consistent employment in the sector, as a way to incentivize them to establish their own farms and/or working lands-related business and encourage an expansion of local agriculture. Put together, such programs quickly make agriculture look like a promising career and livelihood path, especially for young people and especially in rural areas.

Recommendation 4.1 Evaluate the regionally specific factors inhibiting youth from working lands careers in the U.S. Northeast, with a particular eye on issues of land tenure, health care, and higher education.

 For Cooperative Extension: Develop outreach, education, and programming that specifically target new, young farmers/working lands producers and provide training on ecologically sound management practices alongside economic planning and financial and material support.  For Agricultural Experiment Stations: Investigate the barriers to entry for prospective farmers and working lands producers to identify key obstacles and bottlenecks, especially as they relate to land tenure, health care, and education. Explore programmatic possibilities, incentive structures, and institutional mechanisms to help prospective producers overcome these hurdles. While the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the environment and to a community are strong incentives for young people interested in working-land professions, in the context of increasingly precarious economic, social, and ecological realities, such incentives will likely not be enough to outweigh the risks associated with pursuing such livelihoods. Working-lands careers, and agriculture more specifically, are inherently risky activities that involve high start-up costs and long-term commitments, each of which is a big hurdle for young people, many of whom are saddled with student debt and health care needs as well as concerns about the economy even before they enter the job market. Based on the data collected in this assessment as well as personal experiences navigating these waters, the authors of this report conclude that the major problem in this regard is not lack of motivation on the part of young people, but rather an increasingly precarious macro-economic context, a generally poor social safety net, and the consequences of climate change in the U.S. Northeast. In order to address this, research on ecosystem service provisioning in the U.S. Northeast should begin to investigate the factors inhibiting youth from working-lands careers. Likely, these factors are complex and multi-scalar, with both universal and regionally-specific dynamics at play. In this work, attention should be paid to the role of non-ecosystem service-related issues, in particular land tenure, health care and child care availability, and access to higher education. If the goal is to not only increase the appeal of working land professions to young people, but to also improve the provisioning of ecosystem services, it is necessary to think more holistically about the myriad factors shaping the economic and social realities of young people in the U.S. Northeast.


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