The Future of the American Farmer

Eighty degrees and blazing sun is not a typical winter day in Southeast Michigan. It is however good news for Tomm Becker, 33, owner of Sunseed Farms in Ann Arbor. A soft, warm breeze rustles through the last clinging leaves of the giant white oak that stands at the center of his ten-acre property. Strewn about its base are all manner of equipment for the farm. Hoop houses—large structures that farmers use to extend the growing season in cooler climates—stand in attentive rows on either side. Sunseed is everything that one would imagine when one thinks of a farm. However, there is something that makes this farm different from most in the country: Becker. He is part of a small minority group in farming: the young.

Today the average age of the American farmer is 58. This average, according to United States Department of Agriculture census data, has been on the rise for more than a century. Fewer and fewer young people have chosen farming as a profession; and as a result, they have left the older generation of farmers to fulfill the task. Now, however, in the past decade, this trend has been reversing.

With the Paris Climate Talks having finished this past weekend, it is important for our country to consider how it will reduce pollution to curb climate change. In the US, industrial farming practices contribute heavily to overall pollution and global warming. The new generation of farmers will play a key role in determining a successful outcome to climate mitigation by determining the future of farming.

The most recent census data from the USDA in 2012, documents a 10% increase in the number of farmers under the age of 35 since the 2007 census. Between 2007 and 2012, over 5,000 new young farmers joined the workforce. According to a survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition around 70% are first-generation farmers—young people with no family history in the business. Who are these new young farmers, and what is motivating them join a profession that was, until recently, dying off?

Becker is one of these new, young first-generation farmers. Before attending Michigan State University to study English literature, Becker had no experience as a farmer. It was a summer job during college at Owosso Organics where he first got his hands dirty growing food. He really liked the work, and got another job that same summer at the Student Organic Farm at MSU, and then decided to begin his own farm after college. Becker says that he appreciates the diversity of the work that farmers get to do. “You get to be a horticulturalist and a botanist, but you also get to run all aspects of your business, be it the finances, the management and the people. You get to be a tractor mechanic, and a carpenter, and plumber, and an electrician.”     First-generation farming comes with unique challenges. In 2011, the Young Farmers Coalition conducted a survey of new, young farmers to assess these challenges. The survey targeted farmers under the age of 35 who had an average experience of between one and five years on a farm.

The survey found that when a farmer inherits an existing operation from his or her family, two major obstacles are avoided. The first is having to purchase all of the expensive specialty equipment that is required to farm. The second is having to buy the farm land itself. New farmers with no family history in the business must finance both.

Despite the challenges presented to first-generation farmers, there is still an ever growing group of young people who are become interested in farming. Anthea van Geloven, 20, a junior, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, has been interested ever since she learned about the idea that one day, we will use up all of the Earth’s oil. “Right now in the world, if you choose to farm you are choosing to heal. You’re choosing to heal the Earth, and heal the people that you are going to feed, and heal yourself.” Still, the financial challenges for new farmers are real, and need to be considered.

Billy King, 38, a second-generation farmer and one of the owners of Frog Holler Farm in Brooklyn, MI says, “I can imagine that for someone just starting with nothing, it’s got to be a lot different and a lot more challenging.” For over six years now King has managed the farm his father started in the 70s. He has been fortunate to avoid these challenges, but has seen a lot of his friends go through them. As he puts it, there are two main financial approaches to farming: either use what you already have and try not to go into debt, or purchase tools and go into debt right away. But for someone who has no family ties in farming, the latter is the only option. That is where both King and Becker see the benefit of community supported agriculture—often referred to as CSA.

In a CSA, each customer buys a share in the farm’s produce at the beginning of the growing season, and then picks up boxes of whatever is in season on the farm throughout the rest of the year. It has been helpful for the first-generation farmers in three main ways. First, it provides the farmer with capital upfront, so the farmer can buy equipment without loans. Second, it shifts the financial risk from the farmer to the members of the CSA. Third, it incentivizes the farmer to diversify the crops they grow, because people want variety.

For Becker, farming embodies a personal ideal on how one should treat the Earth, and live one’s life. “I think it calls on people’s basic need to do something meaningful in their lives, and there’s just not a lot of livelihoods that are like that.” As far as if new first-generation farmers have found the future of farming in the CSA model he says, “We’re not even scratching the surface.”

SpinachSpinach growing in December in a hoop house at Green Things Farm in Ann Arbor, MI. Green Things is run by Nate and Jill Lada, both are first-generation farmers.
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