Any industry that expects to thrive into the next generation needs young innovators to bring fresh ideas and approaches to the business – and agriculture is no different. In fact, agriculture is especially dependent on new people and ideas as it faces challenges related to climate change and a rapidly growing global population. A shortage of young farmers and ranchers lends even more urgency to the issue. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 2.04 million farms and ranches in the U.S. in 2017, down more than 3 percent from five years earlier. The USDA report also found that there were nearly twice as many farmers age 75 than age 35 and under.
It’s no surprise, then, that people like Scott Chang-Fleeman are seen as beacons of hope for the agriculture industry. Chang-Fleeman is the founder, owner and manager of Shao Shan Farm, a 5.5-acre farm located in Marin County, Calif. The farm specializes in certified organic Asian heritage vegetables and is mainly sold to Asian-Pacific Islander chefs, grocers and residents in the San Francisco Bay area. Its produce includes gailaan (Chinese broccoli), gai choi, choi sum, napa cabbage, scallions, chrysanthemum greens and dry-farmed kabocha.
One of the core values listed on Shao Shan Farm’s website is “ecological land stewardship.” Chang-Fleeman, 26, has plenty of expertise in the area, having majored in environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. As noted in a May article on Inside Climate News, Shao Shan Farm uses two rainwater ponds to meet all of its water needs, which is a much more environmentally friendly process than depending on municipal water supplies. In 2019, the farm used only half of its available water.
Chang-Fleeman didn’t take the usual path to farming. A third-generation Chinese-American, he studied jazz saxophone at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and didn’t grow up in or around farms. His interest in agriculture took root when he started studying climate change in college and began to research the effect of farming on environmental degradation.
As an intern with the farm and garden program at UC-Santa Cruz, Chang-Fleeman grew choy sum and sent samples of it to chef Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s, a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Jew was so impressed that he gave Chang-Fleeman seed money to start his own farm. That money, combined with cash he raised through crowdfunding, helped Chang-Fleeman build enough capital to lease a five-acre plot.
One organization that looks to spread the gospel about farming is the National Young Farmers Coalition, a non-profit national advocacy network that works to influence agriculture policy, build networks and provide business services to young farmers. The coalition serves as an advocate for independent family farms, affordable land, fair labor practices, equal opportunities for farmers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and sustainable farming practices that foster healthy soil, water and air.
One of the coalition’s main priorities this year has been to provide resources that help young farmers deal with COVID-19, which has roiled agricultural markets, production and distribution. Among other things, the coalition has hosted listening and strategy sessions, established a phone bank initiative to connect farmers to farmers, and distributed a national survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on individual farmers and communities. There’s hope that more young Americans will follow Chang-Fleeman’s lead into agriculture, especially since so many millennials and Gen Z’ers have shown an interest in both food and the environment.