Encouraging Young Farmers

All my life I’ve heard that farmers in the U.S. are getting older. Somehow that statement never concerned me much. Well, I thought, aren’t we all getting older?

But lately, as I’ve gotten to know numerous young people who are trying to get started in farming, I’ve been thinking about that demographic shift a bit more. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the average age of U.S. farmers has gone from about 50 in 1978 to a little over 57 in 2007. In just five recent years, from 2002-2007, the number of farmers age 75 or older grew by 20 percent and the number of farmers under age 25 decreased by 30 percent. This is a dramatic reordering of our landscape.

What is preventing more young people from entering this profession? Is it a perceived image of farming as mindless and boring? …a distaste for living in rural areas with fewer services and less ready-made social life? …a lack of farming recruiters on college campuses?

Let’s face it; farming has gotten a bad rap for a long time. A poor image and lack of encouragement has steered most young people away. Yet we have recently entered an agrarian renaissance of sorts. The sustainable food and farming movement has created a new awareness of the importance of healthy food and land stewardship. It has reminded people of how noble it is to produce good food and care for our land. Organizations like the Greenhorns and the National Young Farmers Coalition are encouraging and supporting young farmers. Under the newly created Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), the USDA will grant $18 million in the next year to support training, education, outreach, and technical assistance initiatives for beginning farmers.

So what’s the problem?

Emily Oakley and Mike Appel, a young couple who own Three Springs Farm in eastern Oklahoma, believe there are three main challenges to starting a farm. Even after a young person decides to enter this noble profession and gains the necessary skills through internships or other training, they still must: 1) acquire land, 2) access money for the start-up phase, and 3) find ways to lower their risks. When Emily and Mike talk to other young people, a surprising number perceive farming as a form of gambling.  

 At Southern SAWG, we don’t have all the answers for young farmers, but we are listening to their challenges. Our 2012 Conference will have several sessions that specifically address production issues, as well as marketing, business, and financing issues that are facing young and beginning farmers. In addition, Emily and Mike will present a session on how they got started and are overcoming the barriers listed above. Cody Hopkins and Andrea Todt of Falling Sky Farm will also present on what is working and what they are learning in their early years, not only as young farmers, but also as first generation farmers.   

I hope these educational sessions meet some of the needs of young and beginning farmers. Based on past conferences, I already expect that a fertile exchange of wisdom and encouragement will pass between generations in the hallways.

I admit that I am a bit concerned about the aging of farmers now. Several of my farmer friends are expressing a desire to cut back on their work or even retire. So I urge us all to support these young people who have the energy and drive to carry on.