Science, technology, and medicine have made some pretty amazing advances over the last few decades. Unfortunately, we still do not have the ability to live forever. While that is something that human beings simply have to come to terms with, it might spell serious trouble for our future food supply.
Continuing a trend that has spanned over 30 years, the average age of the United States farmer continues to increase. Based on the latest Department of Agriculture data available, the average age of a farmer in the United States is just over 58 years old. Only 6 percent of farmers are age 35 or younger. Perhaps even more alarming is that the number of new farmers who had been on their current operation for less than 10 years was down 20 percent between 2007 and 2012. That means that our farming population is getting older, and new farmers are struggling to stick around.
To combat the problem, an Indiana state legislator recently proposed a bill that would require high schools in the state to offer an agriculture class for high school students. While there is no telling whether the bill will eventually make it into law, especially because it ties overall school performance to offering the class, State Rep. Melanie Wright thought it was at least worth getting the conversation about our aging farmers started.
While I appreciate the merit of teaching high school students basic skills related to agriculture, the proposal for such a class probably is not enough to address the aging farm population. So, why exactly is it so hard for new farmers to enter into agriculture? Here’s are three key reasons.
High start-up costs
Farming is expensive. It requires a handsome sum of money up front, with no promise or guarantee of success. For the sake of example, consider the cash flow of a cash crop operation. The seed and other inputs must be purchased at the beginning of the year. Equipment (expensive equipment) is required to work the ground, plant the seed, and tend the plants. Then, the waiting game commences. Months and months later, that crop is finally ready for harvest, which requires more expensive equipment and storage. The time between planting, harvesting, and realizing a profit can be over a year. In the meantime, the bills come due and no one is pulling a salary. For a young farmer, getting enough capital to make the necessary purchases up front can be a sizeable feat, but waiting for a year or more to finally see a profit (and a paycheck) can be too much to take on. For many young farmers, making agriculture a part-time gig is a necessity, and sometimes it never develops into more.
Access to land
As any farmer around our area will tell you, everyone is always looking for more arable acres! Unfortunately, we are limited to the tillable land available to us, and no one is making more of it. As farms become more efficient and require more output to be profitable, the amount of land needed for each operation continues to grow. As a result, most farmland, especially quality land, is already being farmed by established operations. For a new farmer, carving out or stealing fields for crops or animals can be a challenge. Add to the fact that this race for land tends to dramatically increase the cost of renting or purchasing it, and new farmers face a big challenge just getting into the game.
Lack of knowledge
The work itself can seem pretty daunting, which is precisely where a class such as the one proposed in Indiana could be beneficial. Generally, farmers have to be a jack of all trades, quick learners, and willing to get their hands dirty. Consider that a crop farmer alone may need to understand mechanics for fixing equipment, meteorology to monitor weather patterns, agronomy to care for plants and the soil, and finance to manage the farm’s operations. Throwing animals in the mix, quite obviously, adds another complicated layer of knowledge, training, and expertise required to make the farm successful. For many would-be farmers, especially those that have never had real farm experience, the lack of familiarity with these aspects of agriculture could be a real barrier to entering the field. Oftentimes, these skills are learned and gained through a childhood, teenhood, and young adulthood on the farm.
Government programs, such as low-interest loans for new farmers, and other incentives have started to pop-up to address the issue of our aging farm population. Unfortunately, we still do not have a concrete solution and the 30-year continues. But this is a problem that certainly deserves consideration as we look for a new generation to produce our food.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.