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The Agricultural Cliff: Farmers Are Aging, and Young People Have to Step In

There’s been a lot of talk in these weeks trailing the presidential election about the looming fiscal cliff. Certainly, it’s important. However, it’s troubling that no attention has been paid recently to another—and arguably more important—cliff this country is poised to fall over: the agricultural cliff.
Here are some back-of-the-napkin numbers based on reports from the EPA. There are slightly more than 2 million farms in this country. Of those 2 million farms, roughly 1 million of them are non-commercial/non-producing residences. The remaining 1 million are actual “farms”—properties owned or operated by people who claim “farming” as their principal occupation.
Here’s the problem: The average age of American farmers has been steadily on the rise since 1910. Throughout the early years of the 20th century, farmers aged 65 years or older accounted for less than 10 percent of the farming population. Today—one hundred years later—folks over the age of 65 account for more than 30 percent of the nation’s farmers. According to the most recent agricultural census data we have (2007), for every six farmers that are over the age of 65 in this country, there is only one farmer under the age of 35.
Today, the average age of the American farmer is 55 years old. Therefore, roughly 500,000 U.S. farmers—half of the nation’s agricultural producers—are poised to retire within the next 10 years. ... and young people are not stepping up to fill the gap. This is the agricultural cliff.
If we do nothing, and we lose half our farmers, we can expect these four undesirable things to happen in varying degrees:
1. Small farms will be purchased by large farms. Like has happened in many other industries over the past one hundred years (hardware stores, movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, etc.), consolidation and conglomeration will happen in farming. Historically, consolidation has meant more attention paid to profitability and less attention paid to worker health, product quality, and environmental sustainability.
2. Small farms will be purchased by real estate developers. Farmers with no farming heirs, and no larger farming operation in the area (most of the Northeast), will be forced to turn to less-desirable options to avoid bankruptcy. This, unfortunately, most-often means selling their farmland to real estate developers. Some analysts are speculating that another housing boom is just over the horizon, and if so, (potentially) 500,000 farms going up for sale all at once in the country could make some very beautiful land very cheap.
3. Small farms will go bankrupt. Farms without farmers won’t survive. Even well-endowed and once-profitable farms will collapse under the weight of holding up a farm without a steady stream of revenue. Even if workers are let go, livestock is sold, and the business is shut down, the cost of maintaining a farm—property taxes, property maintenance costs, and the farmer’s personal living expenses—is too much for any one (non-hedge-fund-managing) retiree to support.
4. Food production becomes even less sustainable. Small farms serve (and create) local food economies. Large farms ship food around the nation. If any combination of the three consequences above occur, local food economies will suffer—less local farming, less oversight, added miles per calorie, more petroleum used, etc.
These are frightening prospects, to be sure. But, luckily, there is a glimmer of hope.
The popularity (and profitability) of the sustainable food movement—along with the stifling nature and job insecurity of corporate work—is leading young people to consider taking on the task of farming. The barrier to entry is high, however, as farming is expensive (land, equipment, crops, labor, etc.) and the current generation of young people is already drowning in credit card and educational debt. Therefore, we—as a nation—must do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for these would-be young farmers to transition into the country’s next generation of food-producers.
Here are some ideas:
1. Rent open public lands to young farmers. The once-thriving mill town of Windsor, Vermont is developing a plan to open up approximately 900 acres of unused and open former farm land—now owned by the state’s Department of Corrections—for the purposes of growing food. This move is designed to reclaim farmable land, bolster the local food production system, and encourage local youth to take the agricultural plunge.
Following Windsor’s model, towns and cities around the country could lease unused and publicly owned lands to new farmers in a rent-controlled environment. This move would increase town revenue without raising taxes, provide young farmers with affordable land, and bolster local food systems.
2. Lower the astronomical cost of buying farmland. A conservation easement is an agreement between a land-owner and either a government body (city, town, state, etc.) or a qualified land-protection organization (such as a land trust) that restricts the development of a property. Essentially, a land-owner will sell or donate the right to build on his or her land to a conservation organization—who will then protect that land from future development. The farm must legally remain a farm.
Farmers taking this route make their own land unusable to developers and therefore less financially valuable. Both the annual property tax bill and sale price of the land drop dramatically and making the prospect of a young farmer buying the land more possible.
3. Encourage the rebirth of apprenticeship. Our current model of public education is designed to produce efficient workers in the corporate world. The apprentice model of education is all but dead.
Reexamining and reintroducing the apprenticeship model of education through Farm-to-School agricultural learning programs—wherein kids regularly work on local farms, plant and tend crops, harvest the fruits of their labor, and then eat that food in their cafeteria—could teach a new generation of kids, who were raised on microwave meals, about real food.
Within just a few years, this country will have a bunch of farms with no farmers and a bunch of farmers with no farms. In order for our nation to sustain and build the clean, healthy, real food movement, we will need to make conscious efforts to entice more young people into farming and lower the barriers for those would-be young farmers who are already waiting in the wings.
You can get started today by supporting the work of organizations such as the National Young Farmers’ Coalition and their efforts to make sure we don’t go sailing off an agricultural cliff.
Image via (cc) flickr user kevin dooley\n

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