James Rapp started working at Dig Acres, a 12-acre farm in Chester, New York, as an apprentice in March 2022. He lives with his parents in Westchester and wakes up every morning extra early to drive an hour to work. In the evening, after a 10-hour long day, he drives back. If he had an apartment closer to the farm, it would be less difficult, he said.
“I have never been up against a wall like this before,” said Rapp.
He submitted an application for a condo to a friend’s father.. If he gets it, he would pay $900 a month, $400 less than the next best option he found on the rental market.
“I am still not sure if I am going to get it,” he said. “If I do, it would be a lifesaver.”
A new generation of New York farmers, aged 40 and under, is struggling to afford housing as rent prices in the state have increased by 20% or more just over the past year, according to World Population Review, an independent data organization. This exacerbates staffing shortages on New York farms, and as a result, local farm workers and small businesses are finding creative solutions to tackle the farmer housing crisis and make farming work for them in the long-term.
Alexandra Mantilla, a Cornell University International Agriculture student, was enthusiastic about getting hands-on experience working at a farm, but quickly realized that her housing options were limited.
In 2019, Mantilla applied for an unpaid internship position with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) in New York, a global movement that links visitors with organic farmers who provide free housing and meals.
“I got really lucky that the farm that I ended up living with one summer was a really happy family,” she said.
After her term with WWOOF at a medicinal-herb farm in Geneseo, New York, Mantilla spent the five months submitting farm job applications and going through interviews. She turned down three job offers in 2019 at urban farms in New York City and Washington, D.C. because she realized she wouldn’t be able to afford housing with a minimum wage job.
“We need affordable housing for anyone who works for a minimum wage,” said Sarah Chien, another farmer. .
Chien, 32, was sad when she had to turn down a job in the Hudson Valley, because the farm did not offer housing. Instead, she took an advanced apprenticeship position on a farm on the East End of Long Island, where housing was free.
In 2021, around 78% of rental household units in New York State were either above the affordability threshold (30% or more of income) or faced severe cost burdens (50% or more of income), according to latest figures from the New York State Comptroller’s Office.
Lauren Kaplan, the Farmer Training Program Manager at Glynwood Center, a non-profit organization that explores innovation in food and farming in the Hudson Valley and rest of New York State, has heard about housing challenges from farmers, farm owners, hiring managers, apprentices and job applicants since the onset of the pandemic.
Lack of affordable housing for farmers has turned from “something that is sort of a perennial problem to something that actually feels more like a crisis,” she said.
In 2022, 33% of young farmers reported that finding or maintaining affordable housing was “very or extremely challenging” compared to just 7% in 2017, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, an intersectional coalition that works for justice and collective liberation of food and farm systems through grassroot network of more than 140,000 farmers.
Some small businesses are coming up with ideas to help New York farmers struggling with housing.
In April 2022, Jonathan Falcon, the owner of Slutsky Lumber in Ellenville, New York, started building 136 – 340 ft² tiny houses on wheels for farmers, ideal for one person or a couple. So far, he has sold one finished house to a farmer for $45,000, completed another, and is selling a third soon. Two more trailers will be finished by winter.
Next year Falcon plans to build at least one tiny house a month and rent them at around $1,000 a month.
Meanwhile, two solution and policy-driven projects have received grant funding from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) organization for their initiatives. Since 1988, SARE has allocated $361 million to 8,229 farmer-driven, grassroots and education projects to support development of sustainable agricultural practices nationwide.
Lucinda Poindexter, executive director of the Chester Agricultural Center, a non-profit founded in 2014 to address regional farmer and farmworker issues, said that the organization purchased 15 acres of developable land in Chester, New York, about a year ago with a grant from Enterprise Community Partners. The Center plans to transform into communal housing for 25 to 30 farmers and farm workers. The project is in the initial stages of planning and is set to be finished in the next year or two.
Leslie Lewis and Faith Gilbert, of Letterbox Farm, received a $30,000 SARE grant received in July for the Farmer Housing Working Group project that seeks to take action on developing affordable, farmer-focused housing solutions. Now, Lewis is developing and distributing a survey for 100-200 farmers in the Hudson Valley, to help pinpoint the housing needs of farmers so he and others can assemble a team of experts to work with the farmers on potential housing solutions.
Rapp admits that despite liking his job a lot, he might look elsewhere if he wasn’t able to live at least somewhat comfortably.
“I don’t really see another option,” he said.