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First, consider the numbers. According to the latest census data, there are about 285 million people living in the U.S., every single one of whom has to eat (and most of us do that several times a day). On the flipside, the country is currently home to some 960,000 full-time “agricultural professionals” operating about 2 million farms (including part-time facilities). That’s almost 300 Americans for each full-time U.S. farmer to feed (though, granted, a lot of the food that we eat these days does come from overseas, but that’s another story). And if that figure isn’t scary enough, consider the fact that the average American farmer right now is 57 years old, most likely looking forward to a comfortable retirement sometime in the next decade or so. Now the push to encourage the next generation of farmers makes a lot more sense.

Agriculture Gets Old: Will The West Run Out of Farmers?

First, consider the numbers.

According to the latest census data, there are about 285 million people living in the U.S., every single one of whom has to eat (and most of us do that several times a day).

On the flipside, the country is currently home to some 960,000 full-time “agricultural professionals” operating about 2 million farms (including part-time facilities). That’s almost 300 Americans for each full-time U.S. farmer to feed (though, granted, a lot of the food that we eat these days does come from overseas, but that’s another story). And if that figure isn’t scary enough, consider the fact that the average American farmer right now is 57 years old, most likely looking forward to a comfortable retirement sometime in the next decade or so.

Now the push to encourage the next generation of farmers makes a lot more sense.

“The hair turns gray on the prairie,” says Severine von Tscharner Fleming, creator of the nonprofit Greenhorns organization and co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition, “and farming is a physical job. In order to be responsive to the landscape and to be responsible to the land you’re farming you need to be thinking about of the future, and that includes the future practitioners.”

Founded in Berkeley, Calif., in 2007, the Greenhorns were organized in an effort to “promote, recruit and support young farmers,” a mission the group accomplishes through events for early-career farmers, a weekly radio show, a blog and an upcoming documentary film of the same name. The group also maintains something of a “how to farm” crowdsourced website and organizes networking get-togethers, apprenticeships and hands-on career guidance. The idea is to find ways to pass down the various tools of the agriculture trade – including land, equipment, experience and facilities – to the next generation while encouraging farming communities to take a bigger-picture view of their own futures. “I really think the focus needs to shift,” says von Tscharner Fleming of today’s older farmers. “I don’t think it’s a big shift, but it needs to happen.”

After all, she says, these days a “young farmer” is technically anyone under the age of 57.

In the West, where sheer scale is starting to prevent many new farmers from entering the field, the issue is even more acute. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farms in the Rocky Mountain region are growing larger by the year (in fact, the number of farm operations over 5,000 acres in size in the western states increased 20 percent in the last decade) and this can cause problems for new entrants. “Obviously, if you thought it was hard to step in as a young person and start your career on a 1,000-acre piece of land, then 5,000 acres is all but impossible,” von Tscharner Fleming says. “You can’t plant it all with a tractor, and the scale just locks you into a system of production that locks you into much more debt.”

That, and a sheer lack of information, was the problem facing Dave Banga, 33, when he set up his farm outside of Durango, Colo., in 2005.

“Nobody around me had really even stated up a farm within the last 10 years,” he says, “so there was a lot of stuff that I needed to know that I couldn’t really ask anybody about. Eventually I just learned by doing it and messing up a lot, that kind of thing.”

Banga’s 10-acre farm was a completely raw piece of land when he first signed the lease, leaving him to install a well, run the plumbing, lay out the soil and do everything else that’s needed to get a small farm operation up and running. And, while in hindsight he says it was rewarding work, Banga agrees that the steep barriers to entry, both in terms of farm know-how and pure legwork, keep more than a few potential young career-switchers out of the fields.

“A lot of it wasn’t fun,” he says of the set-up now, “and it’s sometimes been more than I could handle. But even getting past the work, the way that land prices have been rising in the West, because of all the second-home buyers who have been pushing up the prices in the last few years, makes it hard to even pay for land just by growing on it.”

Of course, turnover in the U.S. agriculture ranks isn’t anything new. The Farm Bureau, an agriculture advocacy organization that has been in operation since 1919, has offered its own Young Farmers and Ranchers program for years with an eye toward networking and education opportunities for members under 35. Like the Greenhorns, the group has noticed the “graying on the prairie” trend and has built a network of some 60,000 members nationwide.

“It’s really difficult to get into farming, in part because of all the capital it requires,” explains John Thompson with the Idaho Farm Bureau. “And there are a lot of kids who grow up on farms and don’t want to stay there. The population of farmers versus rest of our country is less than 2 percent now, so we just want to keep people in agriculture, and supporting the young farmers is a way to do that.”

It’s a message that’s starting to resonate both inside and outside the industry. The Greenhorns report solid growth nationwide – the organization now reaches 37 states and its events continue to draw new faces. “The barriers to entry to this business are tremendous and yet we’re having parties where 300 young farmers show up,” von Tscharner Fleming says. “We clearly have people who need to meet each other, and we have a lot of training to do. You’re not born knowing how to run a small business, let alone a difficult, failure-prone small business like a family farm. From where I stand this all just keeps getting bigger.”

And she’s not alone. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a project backed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service, has even gone so far as to say that a new face of agriculture is emerging.

“(It’s) beginning farmers and ranchers who, although they may not come from agricultural roots, seek the knowledge and skills to be agricultural producers,” the group says on its website. “They range from the retired to the young to the college educated to those working on a fourth or fifth career. While they do not have a specific age or area of expertise, many are savvy to the multiple resources available for starting a farm.”

Still, resources or not, farming is a tough way to make a living, as it was generations ago. The difference now is that farming has become an attractive alternative to the ups and downs of many modern careers. Sure, the money may not be so hot, but at least family farmers can forget about layoffs, salary cuts and outsourcing. And that’s worth something these days.

“I think people are ready to look at careers and their lives in ways that they didn’t used to,” says the Greenhorns’ founder, “and that has a lot to do with the economic downturn. It’s a new ballgame. The conditions are ripe right now for people with ambition and who are looking broadly at the world we live in, and agriculture can be a wonderful fit for them.”

About Tim Sprinkle

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10 comments

  1. Fantastic Article.

    In case you are interested, here’s a great website with lots of resources for learning about how to start farming: http://beginningfarmers.org.

    -J

  2. Farming makes you old and wears you out fast. Mechanization and large acreages aren’t just passing fads like back yard hobby farming. Mechanization has taken the backbreaking drudgery out of farming and made it more efficient and profitable.

  3. My advice to new farmers: stay small, organic, sustainable and don’t listen to naysayers like Mr Garcia. I’ve done all of the above and live a comfortable life, and I’m not anywhere near worn out. The small farmer has been around and viable a whole lot longer than the mega farms of today, and we will be the future. Family farming is no passing fad.

  4. Despite romanticizing small farming, recent data suggests that on average, only the larger farms are profitable. In 1996 the average farm income per farm for small farms in the U.S. (less than 50 thousand dollars in sales) was a negative 3,400.00 Dollars. Many of these farms are often part time activities. These same small farms had average off farm incomes of 45,400.00 Dollars offsetting farming losses. Nationwide about 84% of the average small farm operator’s household income come from sources other than farming.

  5. Well, Mr Garcia, I’m living the farming dream, not sitting on my bum regurgitating statistics. I’m small, sustainable and quite profitable, and I don’t have any other income. It’s possible, and I know many doing it. My overhead is very low because I own my property and I don’t dump chemicals into my animals or on their pasture. Just stay small and don’t trash your land with chemicals. It works. I’m living the dream, rather than posting constant negativity on this web site. I think that’s called “trolling” Mr Garcia. Don’t you have any other hobbies? I’m done here, because It’s useless to argue with trolls. Please find another hobby, it will do your temperment wonders, heck you might even be happier if you were actually out in the great outdoors.

  6. Inasmuch as I enjoy eating, I’m concerned about agriculture and family farming.
    Mechanization is a double-edged sword. Yes, it cuts down on the back-breaking labor of my grandparents’ era, but it also forces a “get big or get out” approach that makes it terribly hard to get by on anything less than 1,000 acres.
    The industrialization of agriculture has brought vast monocultures (especially of corn), chemically-saturated soils (herbicides and pesticides), GM crops to make extensive use of herbicides, exhausted and eroded soils and CAFOs that have proved highly polluting while turning many farmers into little better than indentured factory hands.
    None of this is sustainable. Factor in climate change, water depletion and ever-higher fuel/fertilizer costs and the picture becomes quite daunting.
    One of the encouraging developments is 2008 Macarthur Fellow Will Allen and his urban agriculture.
    Will Allen is an urban farmer who is transforming the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods to underserved, urban populations. In 1995, while assisting neighborhood children with a gardening project, Allen began developing the farming methods and educational programs that are now the hallmark of the non-profit organization Growing Power, which he directs and co-founded.

  7. Mechanization and Industrialization of agriculture is a response to the increasing demand for food of an increasing human population. More mouths to feed on the same amount of land with less labor input is a good thing. Its called efficiency. In the technologically advanced countries it’s kept food costs affordable for low income people. In developing countries, humans are abandoning small, subsistence farming in droves and are heading for the cities because they no longer can make a living at it. Why would an advanced Country like the U.S. believe small subsistence farming is going to solve the food problems of a rapidly growing population?

  8. Are you kidding?? 10 acres is NOT a farm. That is a hobby. And I’m sorry, but even thousands of 10 acre-organic hobbies will not feed enough people. That’s the problem with organic farming, it’s fine if you can find a niche market, but there is only so much room for the niche producers. The majority of farmers/ranchers still need to be large enough to take advantage of the economy of scale. And if you don’t already own your farm/ranch (i.e., were born into it) then you don’t stand a chance. That’s the reality of today. We’re unfortunately going to end up doing what Al Gore & his followers have always proposed, and that’s importing the majority of our food supply.

  9. I recommend a book to all who are interested in this topic and this discussion.
    The book is THE UNSETTLING OF AMERICA by Wendell Berry. It’s out of print but you can find it on bookfinder.
    Nothing in this story or the comment thread refutes Berry’s thesis that industrialization of agriculture produces superficial rewards in production and efficiency but at the cost of destruction of rural culture and huge buried costs of pollution and resource degradation.
    Agree or disagree, but Berry forces you to think more deeply about the relationship of people to their food – and makes you question your assumptions.

  10. Interesting article. I am assuming that the “younger than 57” isn’t hyperbole? Farming on any sort of “sustainable” (whatever YOU deem that to mean) has become nearly impossible over the past 40 or so years. In order to survive agriculture has become agribusiness. With the myriad of environmental and regulatory compliance issues, the need for capitalization, replacement equipment, operating capital, governmental meddling in the market place through subsidies, death and estate taxes, etc., the actual raising of crops has become almost a secondary issue.

    For generations, FFA has been the vehicle by which farming techniques have been shared. FFA struggles even in the core of American farm country. Young people are choosing not pursue farming for a variety of reasons but “it isn’t “cool”; (farmers are portrayed as stupid rubes, clinging to their religion and guns); the entry costs into farming are prohibitive -passing a farm now to the next generation isn’t a possible in most circumstances because of the insane tax code. I could go on, but you get the idea.

    Along comes Greenhorn? From Berkeley? God help us! Be afraid. Very afraid. The “educated” from those bastions of higher learning are one of the reasons that American agriculture is in the current state. Nothing good came of this. Nothing.