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Economy & Business
The challenge of cultivating a new generation of agricultural workers in PennsylvaniaThe agriculture sector faces a serious labor shortage. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture predicts that 75,000 agriculture and food positions in the state will go unfilled by 2027 – a substantial share considering that today these fields employ an estimated 280,500 people.The labor shortfall reflects larger economic forces that keep young people and outsiders from becoming farmers. And now, as the farming population continues to age, more land will change hands, and with it, the power to shape the state’s physical and social landscape.

Want to start a farm? Good luck finding land

Margaret Schlass (Don Holtz).jpg
Don Holtz
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Don Holtz Photography
Between 2009 and 2015, Margaret Schlass owned One Woman Farm, a certified naturally-grown produce farm in the North Hills. In addition to running a community supported agriculture (CSA) business, she sold to Pittsburgh-area restaurants and at farmers markets. She closed the farm in 2015 after one of her landlords revoked a handshake lease for her biggest plot of land. This photo was taken in 2014.

Stephanie and Taylor Rickert have always wanted to own a farm. They grew up in farming families, but most of the land was sold off when they were still kids.

So several years ago, in their early twenties, the couple started to search for their own place. It was a daunting task that bordered on the impossible.

“[We] couldn't find anything,” Taylor said. “We actually went out and made note cards that said, ‘Please call us back. We're young, and we're looking for a farm,’ with our name and number. And we actually went around and knocked on people's doors.”

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An-Li Herring
Taylor (left) and Stephanie Rickert bought their 20-acre farm in the village of Princeton in August 2020. They had searched for several years, and property was so hard to come by that they resorted to going door-to-door to ask landowners to sell.

For people who want to start their own farms, there’s no guarantee they’ll find land. It's a top barrier for newcomers in the agriculture industry.

No one wanted to sell to the Rickerts, or they wanted too much money, the couple said. Other properties were snapped up before the Rickerts could get to them.

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An-Li Herring
Stephanie and Taylor Rickert sell about 20 dozen eggs a week. Their customers include neighbors, relatives, co-workers and a retirement home.

But then, a relative near McConnells Mill told the couple that her neighbors were moving to a nursing home and about to put their 20-acre farm up for auction.

The Rickerts weren’t sure they could compete — developers would probably bid, too, and auctions involve hefty down payments.

But then, the couple got a call from the family that owned the farm.

“And they're like, ‘Are you guys really interested in buying the place?’” Stephanie remembered.

“We’re like, ‘Yeah, we really want it. We're doing as much as we can.’ And then they go, ‘Well, we’ll just sell it to you outright then,’ which changed the whole ballgame.”

The Rickerts bought the farm last year at a slightly reduced price. Now, they raise chickens, cows, and pigs, and sell enough meat and eggs to keep their business going.

They attribute their success to both dogged persistence and tremendous luck.

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An-Li Herring
Stephanie and Taylor Rickert say they are starting small with their cattle business. They own three cows for now.

“And at the end of the day, it only took one special family like the people that we bought this [place] from to say, ‘You know what? Put all the money aside. … Our parents want to see this stay a farm. Is that worth it to them?’ And it was,” Taylor said.

Shaky leases

The Rickerts both still work full-time off the farm — Taylor on a municipal road crew and Stephanie as a dental hygienist. It’s common for small farm operators to have off-farm jobs to supplement their income.

First-generation farmers like the Rickerts, who don’t already have land, often cannot acquire enough acreage to farm at the scale needed to make a living.

“It's exceedingly difficult to build anything of significance under a traditional farm lease,” said Margaret Schlass, also a first-generation farmer who started her own farm in 2009, when she was 23 years old.

At the time, she could only afford to rent, and after years of searching, she ended up in handshake deals for two properties in Richland Township and one in Middlesex Township.

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An-Li Herring
After shuttering her farm in 2015, Margaret Schlass became an industrial mechanic.

“The handshake lease is so common in [agriculture],” Schlass said. “When you start asking people to put things in writing, they start to want to just back away.”

From the beginning, she knew it was a risk not to have a written lease. But during her first five years in operation, it seemed like she’d made a good bet: She had hundreds of customers, including local restaurants, and employed as many as a dozen people on her roughly 50-acre produce farm.

But at year six, her biggest landlord pulled the plug, and Schlass had to shut down the business.

“That just goes to show you [that] you can work as hard as anybody. … You can have wonderful customers. And all it takes is one landowner saying, ‘I don't see you here anymore.’ And your whole business comes crashing down,” Schlass said.

‘My only option’

Now an industrial mechanic, Schlass doesn’t regret the risks she took with her farm.

“I wanted to live my dream. It was my only option,” she said. “I didn't have the resources to go out and buy the perfect farm for me. … I don't have any inheritable land, any inheritable anything.”

Karen Gardner, the National Young Farmers Coalition’s Pennsylvania manager, said Schlass’ situation is not unique.

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An-Li Herring
Karen Gardner is the Pennsylvania manager for the National Young Farmers Coalition, which seeks in part to increase access to careers in agriculture. The advocacy group has chapters in western Pennsylvania and the southeastern part of the state.

“Land access is the number one challenge that farmers are facing,” Gardner said. “It's also the number one reason that young farmers are leaving agriculture.”

Newcomers in ag often struggle to compete with developers when trying to purchase land. This pressure is especially pronounced near urban centers, which can make it difficult to access areas with high concentrations of consumers.

Given the high cost of land, many beginning farmers are forced to accept year-to-year leases or handshake agreements.

This dynamic further strains an aging industry that is projected to face a severe labor shortage in the coming years.

A 2018 study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture predicts the state will have 75,000 unfilled ag jobs by 2027. That estimate represents about a quarter of the sector’s existing workforce.

In addition, the state lost 6% of its farmland between 2012 and 2017, according to federal data.

Tenuous future

Gardner said first-time farmers need more support to survive in ag. For example, her organization recommends that state lawmakers adopt tax credits for beginning farmers as well as programs to preserve working farms.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy got involved in this effort about five years ago even though it has historically focused on protecting state parks and natural areas. In 2019, the land trust announced it had launched a program, called the Farmland Access Initiative.

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An-Li Herring
Shaun Fenlon is vice president of land conservation at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The land trust rents farms at discounted rates in Lawrence, Mercer, and Westmoreland Counties.

“What we decided … we'd try is buying the properties ourselves and then leasing them out to farmers at really arguably subsidized rates and really help them just give them a chance to really develop their businesses,” said Shaun Fenlon, the conservancy’s vice president of land conservation.

The nonprofit now owns three farm properties outside Pittsburgh. Fenlon said the small farms in the program generally don’t provide a livable income for their tenants and that the conservancy has no plans to obtain more farmland.

So, the high cost of land is likely to remain an obstacle for new farmers.

Still, Margaret Schlass said she hasn’t ruled out giving farming another try. But the right opportunity would have to come along.

“It's your whole life, so as a farmer, you need it to meet your needs: You need it to have the right amount of acreage, [and] it needs to be the right farm for you. … It needs to give you the things you need to be successful,” she said.

This report is one in a series about the challenge of cultivating a new generation of farmers in Pennsylvania.