Lindsey Shute, National Young Farmers Coalition: "We need empathy"

Lindsey Shute, National Young Farmers Coalition: "We need empathy"

Lindsey Shute, National Young Farmers Coalition: "We need empathy"

Lindsey Lusher Shute, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.

With a background in organizing and state policy, Lindsey co-founded NYFC as a platform for young, progressive farmers to have a meaningful influence on the structural obstacles in the way of their success. Lindsey is a respected speaker and an expert on the structural issues facing family farms. In 2014, she was named a “Champion of Change” by the White House. In addition to her work with NYFC, Lindsey is co-owner of Hearty Roots Community Farm in Tivoli, New York.

Food Tank had a chance to speak with Lindsey about her background and inspiration, as well as the opportunity for talented and ambitious young farmers to inspire food system change.

Lindsey Lusher Shute is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit.

Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?

Lindsey Shute (LS): I started organizing with young farmers because of the challenges that my husband Ben and I faced in growing our own farm. As we met more and more farmers who were facing similar struggles across the nation, I realized that we lacked a political voice. There were too many young people with the ambition and will to farm, but without a way to get there. 

FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?

LS: I have a constant source of inspiration and motivation in the people that I work to represent: young farmers. These farmers are out to change the country by growing great food, taking care of the soils and water that they depend on, and daring to compete as small farmers in a highly consolidated food system. The risk that these farmers take on behalf of their communities keeps me going. I want them to succeed, and I know what they’re up against. 

I’m also encouraged by our bi-partisan traction and success at cutting through partisan divides. Just a few weeks ago, Rep. Glen Thompson (R-PA) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) reintroduced the Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060) to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. These co-sponsors were joined by two additional Republicans and two additional Democrats. These actions demonstrate how farming can be unifying—and a way to overcome national divisions in favor of help for ordinary people.

FT: Who inspired you as a kid?

LS: My two grandfathers were rural ministers and World War II chaplains. As a child, they served as beacons of service, faith, and devotion to community that I can only hope to achieve. When I would attend my family’s church in southeast Ohio as a child, the day would be filled with stories from church members about how my grandfather made a difference in their lives. One particular story that stuck with me is about a neighbor boy who repeatedly robbed my grandfather’s farmhouse. Over the course of months, electronics went missing and eventually my grandfather’s gun. After the kid went to jail on other counts, my grandfather repeatedly visited him and expressed his forgiveness and hope for the kid’s future. 

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

LS: The biggest opportunity lies in the talent and ambition of young farmers. If they’re given a real chance of success—land to own, sufficient capital, healthcare, and appropriate technical support—they will thrive and change the food system through their entrepreneurship. The candidate for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Purdue, can leverage this new talent by directing the USDA to stand by young people in agriculture.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?

LS: Leah Penniman is one of my food heroes. Last spring I gave a short, public talk about why we have lost so many farmers in the United States and I failed to speak to the effects of racism. Leah, in the audience at the time, rightly let our team know that my narrative was incomplete. Her willingness to speak up in that moment and to continue dialogue with our team led to the development of a racial equity program at NYFC—as well as more farmers of color identifying with and joining the coalition. Leah helped me in that moment and I am deeply grateful for her strong voice and leadership.

FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?

LS: With the massive cuts proposed at USDA, healthcare access for farmers on the brink of collapse, and immigration enforcement threatening the farm workforce, it’s hard to ignore the myriad of rural issues created by the Trump Administration. But outside of these immediate policy crises, the nation must address the issue of affordable land access for farmers. In the next 20 years, two-thirds of the farmland in the United States will change hands as our aging farm population retires. How that land transitions will set the stage for the future of our food system. If we provide access for working class, small farmers, we will promote economic vitality, national security, and sustainability. 

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

LS: Practice empathy. In so many of the political discussions that I’ve been hearing recently, there has been so much antipathy for people facing struggle. We critique immigrants who, like most of us, came here for good work and opportunity. We call out folks who couldn’t afford healthcare before the Affordable Healthcare Act, and we undermine government programs that stoke innovation in areas of the country where mobility and economic agency have grown dim. I believe we need smart government programs that leverage best practices in technology and management, but I also want a government that stands by the principles of empathy and compassion for our neighbors. To get there, we need empathy. And to practice empathy, we probably need to drop our phones and make time for conversation with people outside our immediate circles. 

FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture? 

LS: Agriculture is the wealth of the nation, and a large part of our national security. Although so few Americans are now farming, these farmers have an outsized impact on the nation’s health and prosperity. We need to invest in their futures and ensure that we are supporting smaller farms that minimize risk, make our economy more resilient, and keep dollars in rural communities.

 Lindsey Lusher Shute is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit.

Lindsey Lusher Shute is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit.

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