Young American Farmers on the Rise
January 8, 2018
The statistics show young people becoming American farmers again; an oddity that’s only occurred one other time in the past century. However, the picture painted in recent news articles use outdated statistics as a foundation. It’s 2018, so measuring the current health of agriculture with data from 2012 seems quite out of touch. And 2007 numbers? Please, it’s like counting puffs of dinosaur breath. Hardly keeping a finger on the pulse of an industry.
However, it is the government, and no one tallies this stuff between censuses (twice a decade). Judging by the last date of publishing, we won’t get a look at the health of American farmers as an industry in 2017 until 2019. Stats that will already be too old to give anyone an accurate picture.
Demographics from the latest censuses show most American farmers are now over 58 years old. Farm succession within families and buying into farming is decreasing. Not surprising, you think: land prices are too high, urban sprawl is out of control, and Big Farma is hell-bent on gobbling up the competition.
Truthfully, however, you acquired said farm… One must keep it producing a living and cover expenses. It’s difficult, even impossible when you cannot get big credit. Over 60% of young farmers and those who want to be one have college educations. But their student loans stand in the way of the necessary operating loans and equipment purchases. It’s also a dangerous occupation, too high-risk for reasonably-priced health insurance. (Does such a thing exist for the self-employed?)
After reading a few pieces on ageing vs. young American farmers, I have to wonder why mainstream media ignore the broadening disenchantment with pesticides and GMOs. But this is one of those things that a) would never be on a census, and b) wasn’t so widespread 6 or more years ago. Still, farmers of any age who wish to get out of commodities and into growing real food also face another huge impediment. One farmer’s input via WaPo comments:
“I own the farm my family has had for nearly 150 years. It is a commodity farm, with beans, corn, and wheat.
Because of the much higher value per acre, I looked into doing a test of growing vegetables to sell to local supermarkets and restaurants. I quickly discovered that there are laws against that, put into place by the large corporate farming lobby. In order to meet the requirements of the laws, I would have to first spend about a hundred thousand dollars, an incredible sum for this test to see if it would even work. So I said, forget it…
The cost of farmland isn’t such a barrier as the cost of meeting regulations that were put in place by corporate farm lobbies.“
Yet, young American farmers working parcels of land too small to qualify as farms are popping up everywhere. And many of them left jobs made possible only through debt. Does the 2.2% increase in farmers under 35 include urban farmers, smallholders, or homesteaders? Many of them didn’t exist in 2012! But manually-powered equipment is popular with this group. Labor-intensive, yes, but highly sustainable – both financially and environmentally.
Some of these 21st-century farm startups find horsepower a better option than debt-incurring tractors. Which reduces a young American farmer’s operating costs, since it adds renewable fertilizer. Helios Horsepower Farm is one example in the US. But you’ll find it a growing trend in the UK too, where Chagfood Community Market Garden shops for implements among the American Amish.
What about young American farmers growing in their garage, backyard, or a warehouse? It’s not like they’re taking the occasional basket of excess to a farm market. No, this is Farming 2.0 and locally grown.
⇰ Alejandra Rodriguez Boughton left corporate banking to open La Flaca Farm in Austin, TX. Her half-acre urban operation gives her bigger purpose harvesting 195 different crops a year, some of which she is the only source.
⇰ Chris Carrier walked away from Silicon Valley to open the Detroit Mushroom Factory, which quickly outgrew his house and moved to a 9000 sq ft facility last year.
⇰ Dave Haider quit construction and dove into aquaponics when it was still experimental. Today, Urban Organics in St. Paul produces hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh fish and vegetables annually.
⇰ Dan Albert left landscape architecture and returned to farming… with a twist. He grew Farmbox Greens out-of-pocket in his Seattle garage, an increment at a time. A profitable, modern American farmer who operates debt-free.
Though much discussed, these statistics don’t include many young American farmers. Look around you. There are a lot more people growing food than you’ll hear about in the news. And they’re not working 100-1000 acres. Even so, there’s plenty of room for entry into the industry. Only 2% of all US farmland is used to produce fruits and vegetables. That’s not enough to supply every American with healthy food.
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