We Need Young Farmers—Here’s Why I’m Not One

“What would it take for you to join a farm?” asked my editor. I raised my eyebrow as if the answer wasn’t obvious.

Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and become a farmer? Spending the day working outdoors, in the dirt, under the sun, and out of an anemic cubicle? Long hours? No problem. Fresh air? Yes, please. Growing food with your own two hands? Sign me up.

Let’s get one thing straight—farming is hard work. It’s hours and hours spent hauling, crouching, digging, planting, and pulling. It is unpredictable. Did you just plant your crops and now there’s no rain, and when it finally rained, did insects swarm and turn your lettuce into lace? Or, did you reach into the hen box to find not an egg, but a snake? I’ve seen my father worry about making ends meet and struggle through winters on his farm. It’s challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding when we pull up chairs next to the wood stove and have a hot meal from field to table after working all day.

This might not be everyone’s ideal lifestyle, especially among my peers. We’re a generation grown in the suburbs. We pay $5 for coffee and make verbs out of nouns. At the same time, we’re generation start-up. We can build social networks, create apps, and launch companies where social responsibility is coded into the business plan. We’re definitely interested in our food, where it comes from, and we care about how our current food production system impacts our planet. Farming seems like a good fit for us. So, why aren’t more of us trading in our skinny jeans for overalls?

Picture of a man eating a farm tomato

Abdala Al Nur Ibrahim Abbakar tastes a tomato while working on October 5, 2013. Photograph by Albert González Farran, UNAMID

We like the city. We like it so much that American cities are now growing faster than suburban and rural areas for the first time since the 1920s, according to a report by Neilsen. Even if you’re a young person who grew up on a farm, you may have gone away to college and may now live in a large metropolitan area.

I live in a city, too, miles away from my father who happens to be roughly the average age of farmers in the U.S., which is about 58 years old, according the USDA Census of Agriculture. This creates a problem. I’m missing out on all those great father-daughter farm teaching moments because I happen to like living in a walkable neighborhood with shops and creative outlets. It’s not that I don’t want to farm, I just might not want to farm right now. I’m not done cultivating my city life, which is valuable, too, but what happens when I finally decide to move to the country, or what happens when someone who’s never farmed before wants to get started?

There are fewer U.S. farmers than there were 30 years ago, and as a group, they’re getting older. In 2012 (the most recent data), 62 percent of all U.S. farmers were 55 years and older, a change of 20 percent from 1982. The average age of farmers increased as well, to 58.3 years old in 2012, from 50.5 in 1982. NG GRAPHIC; SOURCE: USDA

There are fewer U.S. farmers than there were 30 years ago, and as a group, they’re getting older. In 2012 (the most recent data), 62 percent of all U.S. farmers were 55 years and older, a change of 20 percent from 1982. The average age of farmers increased as well, to 58.3 years old in 2012, from 50.5 in 1982. NG GRAPHIC; SOURCE: USDA

 

Luckily, there are programs to help. There are farm internships, classes and workshops that can teach you sustainable farming basics or small farm business practices. In addition to educational assistance, there are resources for financing as well. As part of the Farm Bill, the USDA Farm Service Agency offers loan programs to help beginning farmers and ranchers.

RELATED: “American Farmers Are Growing Old, With Spiraling Costs Keeping Out Young”

The reality is that farmers are aging and we need younger people to start taking the reins now so they can learn from wise farmers who are still working before they retire, especially if we want to maintain a diversified food system that can rely on family farms to feed America.

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