The Need for New Farmers

Author: Zoë Bradbury

Publish Date: Winter 2009

Every 5 years the United States Department of Agriculture sends all of us farmers a survey that rivals War and Peace in length: the Agricultural Census. And every five years once all the results are tallied – the irrigated acres summed, the number of women farmers counted, the gross revenues from hog production totaled- and much, much more –without fail, an alarm bell goes off. With no offense intended to my baby boomer parents, U.S. farmers are getting old. The national average has climbed to 55.3 years as of the last agricultural census in 2002 (the 2007 census results have not been released yet), and the trend is ever upward.

Well big whoop, the parents are muttering: Fifty is the new thirty anyway...

Be that it may, the sirens are clanging not only because farmers are getting older – more than a quarter of U.S. farmers are over 65 and in Oregon, it’s anticipated that up to half of the state’s farmers and ranchers will retire in the next decade - but because young farmers are also in short supply. A mere 5.8% of us are now under the age of 35, compared to 16% in 1982.1

The simple take-home from this mess of statistics is that farmers are getting to be a rare, old breed in America, comprising a scant 1% of the U.S. population compared to 40% in 1900. In fact, the headcount has dipped so low that people who grow food for a living are now outnumbered by federal prison inmates. Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.

Which begs the question: how did we go from the Jeffersonian ideal of independent family farmers forming the backbone of society to an era in which the mainstream connection to agriculture is boiled down to tidy, iconic, disembodied exposure - corn on the cob at county fairs, glossy images at the grocery store, and cowboy boots on the retail rack at Ross Dress for Less?

There’s a long history of U.S. modernization and agricultural policy to point to, but a few headlines stand out:

• The combustion engine headline from the early 1900s: “Tractors & cheap energy displace draft animals, people”

• The post-WWII headline: “Nerve gas & bombs reincarnated as pesticides, fertilizer – the work of farmhands now done by chemicals”

• The still-relevant 1970s Farm Bill headline: “Government pays farmers to overproduce commodity crops: Prices plummet, farms forced to get big or get out”

• The 1980s farm crisis headline: “Interest rates skyrocket, farmers default on debt, suicide rates surge”

• The ongoing corporate agribusiness concentration headline: “Four companies control 80% of U.S. meatpacking: Monopoly control takes its toll on family farmers”

• The ubiquitous credit headline: “Farming seen as high risk, lenders balk at making farm loans”

• And the real estate headline: “Land prices through the roof due to development pressure”

There’s a joke that asks, “What do you call a dairy farm willed to the kids?” And the reply: “Child abuse.” Which, in addition to all of the economic, political, and technological forces highlighted above, points to a cultural element in this saga of farmer aging and attrition. It’s the mainstream stereotype that has dogged agriculture over the past half-century: that farming is a life sentence to work your way out of, not into. This notion alone has been one of the most powerful constructs spurring successive generations off the farm in search of higher-paid, better-respected desk jobs.

The result is a U.S. food system that resembles an inverted pyramid teetering precariously on its nose, a system in which just 3 million people – most of them grandparents - feed three hundred million and the world beyond. It’s also a food system in which a startling majority of people don’t have a clue about where their food comes from and where the average fifth grader can identify more corporate logos than local plants.

Proponents of modern industrial agriculture will argue that there’s nothing wrong with a scenario like this in which the fewest possible number of people feed the largest possible number of people. In fact, it’s an equation that economists celebrate, touting America’s agriculture as the most successful (read “efficient) in the world. This paradigm asserts we don’t need more farmers to feed a growing population; we simply need bigger tractors, bigger farms, and biotechnology.

Except for one big problem: oil. America’s industrial food system relies almost entirely on oil, which it transforms into everything from carrots to Coke by way of diesel-powered tractors, natural gas-derived fertilizers, oil-based pesticides, and gas-guzzling trucks. When all is said and done, the average American “eats” 350 gallons of fossil fuel a year, and close to one-fifth of all the energy used in the U.S. is burned up producing, processing, and transporting food. It means that as oil supplies peter out and fuel costs keep ballooning, America runs the risk of bankrupting its own breadbasket if we bet our lunch on industrial agriculture.

Our chance of weathering this challenge better than other civilizations that have collapsed for lack of food throughout history hinges in part on cultivating a whole new generation of farmers in America. About 50 million in the next thirty years, estimates Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, and they can’t be addicted to oil.

Pulling it off at this scale is going to take a lot of things: programs and policies that give new farmers access to affordable farmland; land use planning that prioritizes agriculture in both urban and rural settings; low-interest loans to help beginning farmers get their start; training and technical assistance to teach smart farming practices; succession planning amongst retiring farmers to help perpetuate successful farm businesses; and an American government that puts an end to subsidizing industrial agribusiness and starts investing purposefully in a crop of sustainable family farmers - starting with the fastest growing segment of farm operators today: women, Hispanic, Asian and Native American farmers.

Fortunately, some small strides were made in this direction in the 2008 Farm Bill, including appropriations for a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, improvements to USDA’s low-interest down payment loan program, and the creation of a new USDA office for small and beginning farmers. These sorts of federal provisions are the ones we need to nurture and expand, in addition to state and local programs that promote sustainable agriculture and the next generation of food producers. OSU’s Small Farms Program is part of this solution in Oregon.

In addition to policy change, renewing the American farmscape is also going to take a cultural shift that revitalizes farm culture, breathes life into rural towns, and throws a party when a college grad decides to be a farmer. We face the task of restoring honor to one of the oldest professions on earth. Heartening is the fact that we’re making the most headway in the realm of sustainable agriculture: at last count, eighteen percent of organic farmers were under the age of 35 - three times the rate of conventional agriculture.

Turning the tanker may be slow work, but here at home we can be buoyed by a unique, little counter-current statistic: Oregon - bucking the national trend – grew 58 new farms between 1997 and 2002, from 39,975 to 40,033.

Only 4,999,942 more to go.

Zoë Bradbury is a young farmer on the southern Oregon coast and a Food & Society Policy Fellow.

  1Data junkies can visit the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to explore their nearly bottomless database of US Agricultural Census information:   2 Visit more information about positive gains for beginning farmers in the 2008 Farm Bill.