Where have all the farmers gone?

As we are talking to the farms across the nation one thing has become glaringly obvious. There are as I can tell, two kinds of farmers out there: the young, ambitious, new farmer and the older, experienced, more jaded farmer. Okay, so what’s the problem?

The problem is, what happens when the knowledge and experience of the largest percentage of our current farming community disappears? How do you take years of instinct and that gut feeling that is the key to a farmer’s success and document it? Well, you can’t. So where do we go from here?

Some stats to discuss over beers:

  • Throughout the early years of the 20th century, farmers aged 65 years or older accounted for less than 10 percent of the farming population. Today—one hundred years later—folks over the age of 65 account for more than 30 percent of the nation’s farmers.
  • According to the most recent agricultural census data we have (2007), for every six farmers that are over the age of 65 in this country, there is only one farmer under the age of 35.
  • Today, the average age of the American farmer is 55 years old. Therefore, roughly 500,000 U.S. farmers—half of the nation’s agricultural producers—are poised to retire within the next 10 years.
  • Fact: Farming might not get you a yacht with a 401K so our generation is not going to be able to fill this gap.

So why does it matter if we lose most of our farmers and all the knowledge they take with them? Seems silly that we even have to mention it but here are a few repercussions to ponder:

  • This new generation gets to reinvent the wheel over and over again, which we all love so much.
  • Small farms and their land will either be acquired by large corporate farms or turned into subdivisions.
  • We will lose most of the small farms we have today all together if no one wants to step up and take over.
  • All in all, the efforts to support local food production become more difficult.

Before we all start throwing our hands up in the air and calling our friend’s brother to see if the job opening at Intel is still available let’s consider some of the proposed solutions:

  • Check out the New Farm Bill program funding dedicated to training and educating the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden says the USDA will help train and educate new farmers and ranchers with $100 million from the new Farm Bill.

“The average age of our farmers is 58 years old. So, we need the bench,” Harden says. “We need to get folks coming into agriculture who either grew up on a farm or are thinking about coming back, but also folks who don’t know much about agriculture, but who have that drive, that passion, who want to get into farming or ranching.”

  • Rent open public lands to young farmers. Towns and cities around the country could lease unused and publicly owned lands to new farmers in a rent-controlled environment. This move would increase town revenue without raising taxes, provide young farmers with affordable land, and bolster local food systems.
  • Just lower the cost ridiculously, insane, over the moon cost of buying farmland.
  • Care. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, “teach our children well” and let’s start participating in a world that values the transference of traditions and knowledge from generation to generation.

I can tell you this, we will be helping to fill this gap by continuing to interview and profile all of the farms across the country and making it a huge goal to document and share what we now realize is too costly to lose. If you have any ideas, solutions or want to get involved, you know where to find us.

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