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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 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, the four-acre operation where Piskor and co-owner Abra Berens, 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” method for more information on this). As Ronald Jager writes in his book, The Fate of Family Farming,

…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 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.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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