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Where Have the Young Farmers Gone?

Family farming: it seems to be a dying practice. Though many of today’s farms are still “family run,” this definition includes less and less small-to-midscale generational farming, and more and more industrialized, corporatized operations. Though big farming enterprises aren’t inherently bad, their business models are often less sustainable and profitable for the earth long-term than their smaller counterparts. Additionally, generational farming models have characteristically helped tend land and community in ways that corporate enterprises cannot.

But saving generational farming is a difficult prospect: as farmers are getting older, their children either don’t want to, or can’t afford to take over for them. Andrea Stone explains [1] in National Geographic:

[Farmer] McManus’s grandson, Dan Worm—the one behind the mechanical shaker—is enthusiastic about a farming life, but the 25-year-old is a decade or more away from being able to buy his granddad out and pay taxes before he can take over the farm. In the meantime, Worm is likely to continue working two jobs while taking accounting classes and buying a little bit of land and equipment at a time.
“Younger farmers can’t afford to buy in,” says Judy McManus, Art’s wife. “Everything is sky-high.” …

Chris Alpers, 31, a third-generation grower who works with his father, David, 55, worries that the dearth of young farmers will lead to more family farms being bought out by bigger farms like his and by even larger agribusinesses.
“If you’re my age, you have no chance to get into farming [on this scale] if it’s not in your family,” says Alpers, who carries a walkie-talkie to connect with field hands. “It’s impossible—you can’t have ten acres and make a career of it.”

This is the great dilemma of today’s farming world: it’s almost impossible to start a successful farm unless you inherit the land, because of the egregious costs involved. Yet many of those uniquely in a position to inherit a farm, the children and grandchildren of farmers, have no desire to do so—or are understandably worried that they can’t make a living out of it.

Some young farmers are finding solutions to this problem, Stone writes, by taking land and turning it back to older, cheaper ways of farming:

There’s no big or expensive equipment at Bare Knuckle Farm [2], the four-acre operation where Piskor and co-owner Abra Berens [3], both 32, grow vegetables and raise free-range pigs. Set in a valley between two cherry groves on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, their vegetable plot is “not a ‘cute’ farm,” says Berens.
“This is a new model,” she says, with “the idea of going back to some of the old-school ways.”

Considering the cost of farm equipment, a more old-fashioned method could help farmers save, even if it’s more difficult to adapt to at first.

Farmers may also find it wise to implement a more diversified method of farming. This, too, is old-fashioned—yet it’s one of the best methods to preserve one’s livelihood if a crop fails. The farms of yesteryear were made up of a variety of crops, and often housed a mix of livestock. If the tomato crop failed, they had backup crops. Additionally, the variety of animals and plants helped to keep the soil healthy and replenished (see Joel Salatin’s “polyface farming” [4] method for more information on this). As Ronald Jager writes in his book, The Fate of Family Farming [5],

…On such farms, commitments and even objects themselves, flocks and fields and tools, had a scale that was comprehensible, humanly manageable, for they presented themselves as already integrated, organically related to each other and, when properly husbanded, mutually supportive. Every farmer knew his own land intimately, knew its quirks, its strengths and weak spots; and to a very large extent it was the produce of that land that was brought into his own table. And he knew his neighbors, and worked with them, and in harvest time exchanged work with them, each lending a hand to the other. Community, farm, ecosystem, crops, woodlot, animals, family, gardens, work, neighbors, worship, leisure—together they promised land and, when effective, shaped a coherent system, a total community of life.

Factory farms do not work in this fashion. As Wendell Berry points out in Remembering [6] and other books, the modern industrialized farm is isolating and stringently efficient, cutting the beauty, diversity, and community out of farming in favor of profit. Oftentimes, these “factory farm” methods necessitate a copious amount of chemicals, inhumane living conditions for livestock, and tasteless produce. This is not the farming of the future—and thankfully, more and more farmers have realized this. Young farmers (where they exist) are adopting more natural, holistic, old-fashioned methods in order to succeed. But sadly, many of these ideas are only being implemented on small farms: “boutique farms,” where the tiny scale makes their costs feasible.

While small farms are important, and most new farms will need to start small, we are rapidly losing America’s midsize farms. They are dying out on a weekly (if not daily) basis, sold by their aging owners—often to land developers, or to more industrialized competitors.

How can we bring the innovation of small farmers to midsize farmers? It could be that some of these aging farmers just need to retire, as Andrea Stone writes. But if there is no one to take their place, what will happen to their land? This is where up-and-coming aspirational farmers are so needed: to carry on the traditions of the past in a figurative sense, but also to bear up the responsibilities and goods of the land in a very literal sense. Unless we inspire a younger generation of farmers to take up the mantle of their forebears, we face a bleak and frustrating future in American agriculture.

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14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Where Have the Young Farmers Gone?"

#1 Comment By Bart W On September 25, 2014 @ 8:54 am

I live in South Alabama. There are a lot of farmers around here and even some young ones. Only two have gone into farming that were not born into it and only 1 of those is a row cropper, which this article tends to right about. The other is a chicken farmer but you can buy 4 acres of waste land and build a chicken farm. Kevin, the guy who farms but was not born into it went to work with a man who had children but did not want to farm. Kevin is getting his land by buying it from his heirs before the father is dead. He is supposed to be putting money aside each year while he works the land in payment for it when the father passes away who is allowing him to work the lend for a nominal fee. I did a quick math tally and the average age of the farmers I know, and I work in ag related field, is around 40 but for row croppers it is 50 plus. The younger guys no longer only row crop. They have become in most instances multi farmers. They raise cows, chickens, and row crops. They use the cows and chickens to even out the bad years on row crops. They also use the chicken litter to fertilize their fields and build up the soil. The results have been promising so far. The word from Auburn is that dry spells stress the crops less leading to improved yields during lean years and an increase in soil fertility. These multi farmers that I mentioned tend to be young and in their 30’s. They usually started out as cow and chicken farmers on small plots of land and expanded out and tried their hand at different things. The last agriculture development that I have seen and find exciting is the development of CSC and hobby farmers who sell at the local farmers market. I am one of those. I work a full time job and a 2 acre veggie farm. Some doe this on a much larger scale and full time as the people mentioned in the article. It is bringing produce back to people local and fresh and I am making quite a good living with it.

#2 Comment By Jake Meador On September 25, 2014 @ 10:02 am

The cost is what makes it so difficult–we’re interning at a small organic farm this summer and, basically, the only reason the farmer we’re working with can do it is because it’s his wife’s land and both her parents and her siblings are supportive of them using it in this way–so their costs are very low. But if they had to actually buy the land they couldn’t do it. One of the other interns this summer wants to farm, but he has no family land and no family money, so there’s not really any possibilities of him doing that. The costs of getting in are just way too high for most people.

#3 Comment By Court Merrigan On September 25, 2014 @ 10:22 am

I can speak to this directly, having inherited (with my siblings) a farm. The guys in your article have it exactly right – unless you inherit land, it’s almost impossible to “buy in” – in some places in the Midwest, land is running $15,000-20,000 an acre. Sure, those boutique farms are nice, but to really run an operation you’ve got to have scale, which means acres, which means hundreds of thousands of dollars for the land alone, to say nothing of the equipment required to run the joint. More hundreds of thousands of rapidly depreciating value.

Guys I went to school with are running multi-million dollar operations these days. Which doesn’t mean they’re profiting to that tune, it just takes that amount of money to really scale up an actual working “mid-size” farm. Guys running the big operations – forget about it. Tens of millions running through there, and I don’t know a one of my generation running that scale of an operation yet. In a couple more decades, though, they will be.

Over the past decades, farmers have answered the labor shortage with solutions Wendell Berry abhors – technology in the form of massive equipment and lots of chemicals. But there’s simply no other way to do it, lacking a labor force. Boutique farms are nice for those who like to feel their tomatoes at a farmer’s market; but the farms that actually feed people (for better or worse, and I’m well aware of the problems with our industrial farming system) require thousands of acres and those farms can’t be run by hand. Hence, today’s situation.

I’m optimistic about the future, though. There’s plenty of young folks out there that like farming, though not as many as there could be; advances in technology means that we can continue to raise crops with less folks. When this current bottleneck of 60+ folks passes, there will be plenty of land.

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest threat to the family farm isn’t corporate farming – it’s investors who treat farmland like just one more part of their portfolio. The people who do the actual farming in that case are little better than tenants. Naturally they’re going to have less regard for the land than a local owner. And when the investing winds shift and those massive funds abandon farmland – who’s going to be there to buy it? I don’t know.

#4 Comment By Derek Leaberry On September 25, 2014 @ 11:33 am

I know it is difficult for many conservatives to think outside the Adam Smith-von Mises-Hayek-Rand box, but Single-Payer health insurance would allow more people to try their hand at farming. Most of these sorts are conservative in thinking. However, like most Americans, people who might try a hand at farming are desperately afraid of losing the health insurance their current jobs provide.

#5 Comment By collin On September 25, 2014 @ 11:42 am

In California, we seeing a lot of corporations taking over former family farms and running it efficiently. (Please note the success of mid size to large family farms depends a lot unique solutions to the ‘labor shortage’.)

However, long term there is always a need for food and the US (along with Canada) are still the low cost producers so farming is always going to exist here.

#6 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 25, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

Why do we need small farmers at all?

Do we need, say, small car makers? Do we need blacksmiths as opposed to iron and steel companies? Do we need the village shoemaker?

The unspoken assumption is that small farming is an unalloyed good, indeed, an essential, and therefore that some great effort must be made to “preserve” it (even if that means changing it around constantly, to try and make it work financially). In reality, small farming is just another small business, albeit one, thanks to rural gerrymandering and the like, with a big special interest lobby.

Small farmers are no more (or less) virtuous than anyone else. They are such a small group that they are now irrelevant to our polity. This is not 1800, when the farm (like the inn, the shop, the workshop and even the office) was an extension of the home, and small, self employed businessmen (most of whom were farmers) were the backbone of the polity, as well as the paradigm behind its Jeffersonian ideology.

Berry notwithstanding, small farming is now a “boutique” occupation. Economically, as poster Court Merrigan points out, only large farms are important in terms of actually feeding our huge, urban populations. Small farming has no particular significance politically or socially either. And its total or near total extinction would be no great loss.

#7 Comment By Johann On September 25, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

Farmland has finally come back down a bit in my state after two years of lower commodity prices. But its still out of reach of young farmers.

There is another unfortunate factor that drove farmland prices to the moon. After the financial crash, the Federal Reserve put interest rates down to essentially zero, and then on top of it, started buying treasury bonds, which put those yields in the toilet and had the domino effect into most fixed income assets. So you had a lot of money looking for yield in other places. The math was that farmland rents paid an income yield much higher than most other relatively safe investments. I’ll have to admit that I bought some at that time too. I rationalize it by telling myself that just me not doing it wouldn’t have made a difference in the price shooting up, but I still feel for the young farmers, some of whom I know personally. I do rent some below the market to a young farmer. (I know, big deal) But its one more perverse effect of our monetary management politburo called the Fed.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 25, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

Farmland’s been bid up 10 fold in the last few years. That pushes it into the hands of the oligarchs. For worse, not better, the economic future of America lies in the hands of the 1% of oligarchs, who’ve structured the legal and tax environment for that by donorism, for themselves.

Ever wonder why the hordes of former small farmers have to leave their land, ending up as the underclass (often in farming) here in America? Agribusiness exports that made farming even more uneconomical in Mexico have lots to do with it.

What’s a bug in the system, to them is a feature.

Americans propped up oligarchies throughout Latin America with just these same features; now those chickens have literally come home to roost.

#9 Comment By WillW On September 25, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

Another thing is that small farming is tough stuff. I’m in the rural South, and there are plenty of old timers who laugh at the whole small farming ideal. Doing your eight and hitting the gate to go home and watch the Cardinals game is much better than working sun to sun and maybe losing most everything if the rains come at the wrong point!

#10 Comment By Reinhold On September 25, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

Take a note from Mao: collectivize the farms and send the college students “down to the countryside.” Problem solved.

#11 Comment By primrose On September 25, 2014 @ 9:08 pm

Taxpayer provided subsidies are the problem. If you want small farmers, stop handing taxpayer dollars to large farmers. If you want young farmers stop handing taxpayer dollars to old farmers.

#12 Comment By Robert Greer On September 25, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

The systematic exploitation of farmland — a.k.a. the natural world — for financial purposes seems a necessary corollary of private ownership of tracts of property. So what’s the solution?

I know the authors on this website are traditional and often favor elevating certain aspects of human life beyond economism into a kind of sacredness, but I don’t think they’re so traditional as to desire a return to a kind of feudalism. Nor do I think Georgism would prove popular around here. So how do we pry open a little daylight between economics’s aggrandizement of human life and our food system?

#13 Comment By stef On September 27, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

Agrarianism worked when the world’s population was 1 billion (in 1900.) Not so much today.

#14 Comment By Andrew Usher On November 4, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

I went to Wisconsin- River Falls (D3) for conservation with an emphasis in Soil science and hydrology…Very difficult to find jobs in Ag fields or natural resources without scrambling for $10/hr filler job. We need to put an emphasis back into opening the job market to entry level 4-year degrees in order to fix the crisis of declining Ag based workers. My end goal when I can afford to retire is to farm and pass the skills that I once had in my youth as a farm boy in Iowa to my kids. My biggest roadblock right now, just like the article states, is funding and an outreach program to get started. I am eager to work but there is no “up and coming” option.