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If you look at the list of preferred professions, you never see farming listed, yet I can’t think of a more important profession in terms of its impact on all our lives. Do you agree? – Joe T., Kansas City, Mo.
I was born in Oklahoma just a decade removed from the Great Depression and the largest migration of farming folk in the history of the country, brought on by drought and the resulting Dust Bowl. My mother’s family came from farming. She worked the cotton fields during the Depression. Though I have never engaged in farming, the principles of hard work, honesty, neighborliness and family reliance on one another, so ingrained in her, were passed on to her children. These core values are among the many great gifts she has given me.
Our family farmers carry these values forward to this day. Yet you are right in your assessment. In a listing of the top 60 jobs for college graduates published by Get Degrees, farming did make the cut but was not high on the list, finishing at 26. Even then, it was listed as “organic food producer,” which speaks to where the growth in farming is today. According to the latest census, there has been a small increase in the youngest farmers (ages 25-34). Some young people are clearly responding to what they see as changing consumer preferences for locally grown and organic food. Though organic produce accounts for less than 1 percent of the total food grown in this country, the share is rapidly increasing. According to an article by Richard Lopez in the Los Angeles Times, new U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that sales of organically farmed food increased by nearly 84 percent between 2007 and 2012, reaching $3.12 billion.
The USDA’s report also revealed that women represent the group of farmers that is growing the fastest. Despite the overall drop in the number of farmers, women are now the principal operators of more than 14 percent of the nation’s farms.
That is encouraging news, but then reality sets in.
For anyone new to farming, organic or conventional, starting a small operation poses some staggering challenges. Large amounts of cash are needed for land and equipment, but banks don’t see the profit in small farms. Young people have it even tougher, for even if they are not saddled with student loans, they tend to not have much in the way of collateral.
Today the meager number of people transitioning to farming is raising great concern. The slow rate at which new farmers are entering agriculture is being far outpaced by the rate at which older farmers are retiring. According to the Labor Department, the median age for farmers and ranchers ranks second among tracked occupations. The number of retirees has consistently been on the rise for the past 30 years, and it’s projected that nearly half of the agricultural workforce is primed to retire by the end of the decade.
On the whole, the U.S. farm population has shrunk by roughly 4 percent in the past five years. Flying in the face of this decline is the fact that in the most recent year measured by the census, American agriculture made a lot of money – nearly $395 billion in farm products in 2012, up 33 percent from 2007.
According to analysis, while the number of people who depend on farming to support their families appears to be continuing to dwindle, commodity price increases are causing unprecedented sales and production. The major beneficiaries seem to be the largest farms, whose number continues to grow as the number of midsize farms continues to drop.
According to census data, the most significant decrease has occurred in farmers who have been farming for five years or less. The number of beginning farmers who have been running their current operation for less than 10 years was down 20 percent in 2012.
Small farms seem to be holding on, but it is also noted that these farms rarely bring in enough income to support the people living on the farm. Nearly half of the farms in the U.S. require at least one member of the family to work off the farm.
To deal with the decline in beginning farmers, organizations such as the National Young Farmers Coalition are pushing for policy shifts that would make agriculture much more welcoming to young entrepreneurs. The coalition was co-founded in 2010 by three young farmers tilling New York’s Hudson Valley (Severine von Tscharner Fleming, Ben Shute and Lindsey Shute) and works on the state, federal and regional levels to improve incentives for entry-level farmers. With startup capital being one of the biggest barriers to launching a farming career, one initiative is to reform the Farm Service Agency loan program so it better serves beginning farmers.
In a 2009 paper delivered by Zoë Bradbury, a young farmer and at the time a member of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Food and Society Fellows program at Oregon State University, she states her belief that in order to attract new people to the profession, we must restore a sense of honor to what is one of the oldest professions on earth. The sad irony, she notes, is that today the majority of people seem clueless about where their food comes from. The average fifth-grader can identify more corporate logos than local plants, she bemoans.
“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?” she wonders.
Among her recommendations for revitalizing family farming:
- Develop programs and policies that give new farmers access to affordable farmland.
- Create land use planning that prioritizes agriculture in both urban and rural settings.
- Create better access to low-interest loans to help beginning farmers get their start.
- And how about this? Throw a party when a college grad decides to be a farmer.
The simple take-home from all the statistics, according to Bradbury: Farmers are getting to be a rare, old breed in America, comprising just 1 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 40 percent in 1900.
It is a “1 percent” on which we need to spend much more attention.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.