Dear EarthTalk: American farmers are an aging population. Is anyone doing anything to make sure younger people are taking up this profession in large enough numbers to keep at least some of our food production domestic?
— Beverly Smith, Milwaukee, WI
Indeed American farmers as a whole are an aging group today as young people gravitate more towards virtual realities than tilling in the soil. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) reports that the total number of American farmers has declined from over six million in 1910 to just over two million today, and that for each farmer under the age of 35 there are now six over 65. With the average age of U.S. farmers now at 57, one quarter (500,000) of all American farmers will retire over the next two decades. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is calling for hundreds of thousands of new farmers nationwide, but convincing young people to take up farming remains a hard sell.
NYFC would like to see action at the local, state and federal levels to help beginning farmers. “At the local level, communities can create market opportunities for farmers by starting Community Supported Agriculture groups and shopping at farmers markets, as well as protecting existing farmland through zoning and the purchase of development rights.” States can be helpful, the group adds, by offering incentives to preserve farmland and giving tax credits for farmers who sell their land to new practitioners.
But real change has to come from the top down. NYFC and others are pinning their hopes on the inclusion of the “Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Opportunity Act” in Congress’ next Farm Bill. The purpose of the proposed legislation is to invest in the next generation of American agricultural and livestock producers by enabling access to land, credit and crop insurance to help new farmers and ranchers launch or strengthen their businesses and become better stewards of their land.
“The future of family farming and ranching in America—and the viability of our nation’s food supply—depends upon removing existing obstacles to entry into farming so that more people can start to farm,” says the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, another backer of the proposed legislation. “This bill encompasses a national strategy for addressing those barriers, focusing on the issues that consistently rank as the greatest challenges for beginning producers.” Backers of the bill warn that, at a cost of just a fraction of one percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) budget, the nation can’t afford not to pass the bill given its potential long term benefits to both our food supply and trade deficit.
The good news is that interest in healthier, greener food is driving a resurgence in organic agriculture. As such, many of the new farmers cropping up to replace their retired forebears are eschewing genetically modified crops and harsh chemicals, thus improving the quality of our agricultural land base overall.
Tierney Creech of the Washington Young Farmers’ Coalition (WYFC) calls this influx of green enthusiasm an agrarian revival. “We’re not just a few people spread across the country, we’re a well organized, politically active group that can be documented,” she says. “We know who our senators and representatives are, we vote, and our friends and families vote. We need USDA and government support to succeed and we’re going to let the nation know that.”