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.”