For farmers, retirement isn’t really a thing. It only happens when you physically cannot work any longer. It’s not unusual to see a farmer still “at it” well into his or her 80s. Farming is more than a job; it’s a way of life, and most farmers see its hard work as a virtue.
My family’s story is no different. When I was a young boy, growing up in a small town of 250 in far northern California, I was related to 70 percent of our small immigrant community and almost everyone was a part of a family farming operation. I could count up all the direct family entities and members involved in our family farm: six family units and about 15 family members had the farm as their primary job.
My grandparents and parents had farmed for a long time in order to make it financially, and since there were a limited number of positions to be full-time farmers, most of us kids went off and did other things. By the time my grandfather, let alone my father, felt he could retire, we were long gone – physically as well as in our life circumstances. Today, there are two of our family units left in California, and only two individuals for whom farming is their primary employment.
I had begun visiting with my grandfather shortly after he had stopped farming; his body could no longer carry him to his land and back, and it was clear he missed it. As we were talking, the conversation turned to one of his friends who had recently died. This farmer had been out irrigating and had apparently lost his balance, fallen on his shovel, and perished in the field. With the tone of a eulogy, my grandfather said, “He was a good man…he was a hard worker.” What he was saying was that, in his mind, being a hard worker and a good man were inseparably connected. I recognized, too, that my grandfather envied this in a sense: no one could deny that the late friend was the epitome of a diligent farmer. After all, he had died at an old age in action.
Today, the age of “principal” farmers has increased from 50 to almost 59 years of age, and farmers over the age of 72 outnumber farmers under 30 by five-to-one. Moreover, the number of farmers under the age of 25 decreased by 13 percent over a recent five-year period, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In short, farmers are getting older, fewer young farmers are entering the ranks, and the overall count of farmers is falling. Is this a reason for alarm? The answer comes when you realize the virtually impossible capital requirements necessary to enter the farming industry nowadays.
Go Big or Go Home
Today, a modern combine needed to harvest a crop can easily surpass $500,000 – and by the way, it won’t last forever. You also need more than just one harvester and one tractor today to be a viable farmer tomorrow. You need land, you need human capital, and finally, to play in the industrial food system, you need to achieve industrial scale.
To make it as a farmer today, you must either “go big or go home.” Over the last few decades, if you couldn’t “go big,” you likely sold out to another family farm. Or you got out of farming operations and rented your land to a bigger family farm. Either way, you were “going home” one way or another.
Again, let’s use the example of my family farm. I think most experts would agree that a 500-acre rice farm is on the small side of being a minimum viable size. So let’s add up the costs. You could easily spend over $1 million dollars on equipment needed to farm. The land itself, based on where it’s located, would be about $9,000 per acre. That’s $4.5 million for the land. Then you have to finance the inputs for the crop, easily another few hundred thousand dollars. Worse, you have to wait to see crop income for at least a year. In the meantime, you need enough money to live and pay your bills. You get the idea. We’re talking millions of dollars to get into the farming business. And even if you can get loans, it’s hard to come up with enough upfront cash, let alone to service the debt.
Essentially, you either need to have a family farm passed down to you (which happens less often nowadays) or you need to be rich. And if you’re already rich, you have to be either very passionate about farming or a bit crazy to invest your money there, because the return on those assets is demonstrably better elsewhere.
Here we face two problems: firstly, we have an influx of aging farmers with no one to pass the torch to; and secondly, we have a generation of young farmers who aren’t equipped to face the entry barriers modern-day farming demands. But how did this happen? The answer is quite simple: we developed a rigid, industrialized food system.
Yuppie Farming as an Option
In today’s agricultural economy, young farmers are faced with challenges both financially and logistically. What are their prospects? One alternative is yuppie farming. Don’t let the name fool you: yes, these farmers are young and full of energy, but the lifestyle is still far from glamorous.
Meet Jenn Mueller and Ryan Murray, co-owners of a 10-acre patch of land on the western slope of Colorado known as Yurtstead Farm.
In 2012, while in their 30s, they began growing functionally organic produce that they sold at the local farmers market at premium prices. They also began raising select quality poultry and pigs. They both work hard, live in a yurt built on their property, and enjoy their modest but rewarding lifestyle. But while Jenn’s and Ryan’s farm is possible, it’s not particularly scalable. It’s a problem that many young farmers face: competing with other established farmers, getting beyond the entry barriers, and meeting the demands of today’s industrialized food system.
By staying under the USDA limits, Jenn and Ryan have been able to raise, slaughter, and process their meat without getting a full USDA processing license. However, that also means they can only sell direct to customers at places such as the local farmers markets in Montrose and Ridgeway, Colorado. Because their product is so premium, and farmers market customers are so selective, they are able to sell their products at much higher than conventional prices.
On the other hand, the industrial food system and agriculture policy pushed my family from diversified farming into monoculture practice. In other words, we ended up specializing in and growing only one crop, in our case, rice.
Clearly there needs to be a middle way – a common ground that bridges the gap between new-entry farmers and issues like a lack of a predictable, accessible, and scalable local food system. Indeed, one of the consequences of the industrialization of food has been the demise of all the local food systems that were previously in place. Plus the system that’s needed has to provide access for more mainstream, less specialized, and less expensive product. Of course, farmers can do all the work themselves, like Jenn and Ryan, but that’s not what most of them want to do. After all, a very small percentage of consumers are inclined to pay premium prices at a farmers market. There’s a huge chasm that separates what Jenn and Ryan are doing from the “go big or go home” realities of mainstream farming.
At the end of the day, creating a more flexible food system that makes room for new farmers to enter at a feasible scale and gain access to local markets is key for the future of farming in America. It’s also essential for making sure we have a next crop of farmers at all.
[Photo credit - Flickr: Government of Alberta - Public Domain]