Where Are All the Young Farmers?

Young farmers in the United States appear to be thin on the ground these days, no matter what fawning New York Times features say. A shortage of new farmers is already looming, and the economic downturn has underscored the problems people who want to start farming face, in an era of industrialised agriculture, increasingly remote food production, and food prices out of whack. To take just one example of the issues facing young farmers, support like subsidies is only available for a limited number of crops, pushing people into production they might not actually be interested in, because the alternative is not to farm at all.

Family farms in the United States are beginning to disappear. They’re being chopped up and used to make housing subdivisions. They’re being eaten by conglomerates who can swoop in and offer a bargain basement price when farmers struggle to compete with them. They’re facing growing numbers of kids in farming families who don’t want to farm when they grow up. They see the hardship and the increasing barriers to entry and decide to pursue another career. Farming internships attempt to increase interest in farming careers, as do a variety of programmes to entice people to start farming, but the bottom line is growing unappealing.

Farming independently is a lot of work, and it’s very expensive work. Supplies from equipment to seeds can be expensive. For organic and sustainable farmers, the expense of maintaining certification and living up to their ethics can be a heavy burden. Especially if they also care about their workers and want to provide fair and reasonable compensation for the people doing the handwork in the fields. The smallest farms cannot afford the burden of organic certification at all and work to establish themselves in a niche market that may make it difficult to expand.

For those pursuing conventional agriculture, crops are often genetically modified, which means they’re often sterile. Each year requires a new purchase of seed, and crop rotation is starting to become less common because it’s too expensive, or because farmers want to grab the best price for their crops. That means the soil gets stripped out, which requires more treatment with fertilisers and other expensive products. Agricultural chemicals, whether you support or oppose their use, are expensive, and are critically needed for conventional agriculture to make crops yield a sufficient amount to be worth the effort.

Meanwhile, subsidies push prices out of joint and make it challenging to determine how much crops are really worth at the same time they force farmers to grow in a narrow range. Accessing subsidies may mean giving up on some things in favour of others to get that money, and to get compensation in the event of crop failures and other adverse events. Farmers interested in preserving heritage crops, in growing things that are not wheat, corn, and soy, do not receive the same government support and go it largely alone. That’s especially challenging when their farms are small and cannot functionally compete with corporate enterprises.

The startup costs for farming can be a significant barrier to entry, even for people who are ready and willing to do the work and know what they’re up against. It ranges from banks not being willing to make loans on risky enterprises to the growing expense of agricultural equipment. The United States could be facing a farming crisis and it appears slow to wake up to this fact. There’s much coverage of urban farming movements and hobby farms, but these yuppie endeavors do not create lasting food security for the nation as a whole. Increasing inequalities when it comes to access to fresh food are still a concern, and a hobbyist beekeeper in New York City isn’t having much of an impact on that issue.

Farming used to be big part of what, for lack of a better term, I think of as this nation’s values. There’s an idealisation of farming and farming communities that occurs even now, of course, but there was also a belief that farmers were contributing something valuable, and important, and wholesome, to this country. Those amber waves of grain stood for something, and the Midwest wasn’t a topic of mockery because it was where the farms were; those farms were recognised as important and so were the people on them.

Agriculture in the US today is looking more like a story of corporate greed and exploitation as megacompanies expand, buying up farmland and controlling a growing percentage of the agriculture. The same worker abuses documented in prior decades still occur on farms across the country, where migrant labourers, many of whom are undocumented, do the bulk of the work to keep tomatoes cheap and corn flowing. The situation for livestock is even worse, as it involves the abuse of animals and workers to bring cheap animal products to the table; meatpacking continues to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States and attempts at protecting farmworkers are constantly defeated because they might be ‘too expensive.’

The myth of the small farm, of being able to make a living on sustainable, ethical, responsible farming, is still alive in some corners of this country, a little light burning determinedly despite the gusts of wind. But it’s less and less of an actual achievable reality. Barriers to entry are too high, and pressures within the industry are too great. Consumers are pushed into purchasing the low sticker price products that come with a high ethical cost, and that, in turn, makes it even harder for young farmers trying to enter the industry to get support, especially if they want to farm like previous generations did. Where are the young farmers? Stuck outside a system that’s too expensive, and too grinding, to enter.