I have been looking for a graph that shows the number of US farmers and the average age of farmers on the same graph, but looking at the graphs separately, the impression is still strong. We have less and less farmers each year (2% of the population) and the ones that are left are aging faster than many other industries (average 58.3 years) due to the very small numbers of young people joining the increasingly slim ranks.
For the young people that do want to grow food for a living they must first overcome the high land and capital good costs to get started as well as knowing they are pursuing a career that expects much of them physically and mentally but that society as a whole does not particularly esteem. So I get very excited about the future of food when I see young farmers like these on Jenny Jack Sun Farm making a go of it on their 4 acres with sustainable practices that are not generally found in industrial agriculture.
The next thing young, small-scale food growers have to overcome is the notion that somehow they are only playing at farming if they can’t “feed the world” with their output. The history of this phrase and it’s attendant expectations can be traced directly back to the “fence row to fence row” and “get big or get out” exhortations of 1971-1976 USDA Secretary, Earl Butz. Before Butz moved the finish line to feeding the world, US farmers were only expected to feed themselves and their own communities to be considered successful.
For an interesting perspective on how far we have moved away from community farming, this timeline begins with the percentage of US workers being farmers in 1790 at 90% and details the steady, downward shift from there to 38% in 1900 and down to 2.6% in 1990 where the timeline ends. We will never have a farming population of even 25% again in the US, but something more than a mere 2% will be needed to return to a food system that is healthy and sustainable for both the US population that depends on it and for the land that will be expected to continue to produce food for many generations to come.
And the current trend of less and less farmers that are getting older and older is not sustainable even in the short-term. With many of today’s farmers already approaching 60, how many more years before our current 2% retire from their physically demanding jobs? Young people making a choice to farm and trying to feed their communities should be celebrated for taking on a tough job that we all depend on but clearly, not that many people want to do themselves.
Kudos to the farmers of Jenny Jack Sun Farm and all the others like you!