I went on an interview at a farm a couple of years ago. It was an established farm, in its 30th or so year of production. They grow a diversity of vegetables and have about 60 acres in production every year. This is small compared to many corporate farms, but for the small vegetable farmer in Vermont, 60 acres is huge.
At the interview, I met with the owner and operator, we’ll call him George. George said at the interview, “My five year plan is get rid of George.”
In essence, what he was saying is that he’s looking to hire employees that will do the work, but also who have an eye on the future. Even farmers have retirement plans.
This highlights a national fact that farmers are getting older, statistically, and without an influx of younger farmers to take on farm operation, our agricultural production could be in for some serious trouble.
US Department of Agriculture studies have shown that the average age of farm operators is rising. The fastest growing group is those 65 or older, and in 2007 the average age was 58. In 1945 the average age was 39.
Partner this with the prediction that the world’s population growth will cause a 50% increase in food demand by 2030 (75% by 2050), and the dots begin to connect, forming a large, but empty cornucopia.
What keeps young people from becoming farmers? Again, it’s largely financial. Land values are increasing, and acreage with ideal soil for growing and grazing is also coveted for its beauty or location and used for residential or retail spaces.
The portion of land that is still left as farmland is often still rising in value along with its neighbors, and becomes a tough spot to start when most farms take 5-7 years to become profitable.
Some states and localities offer incentives, or lower taxes on land zoned for farming, or incentives to put land perpetually into agricultural use. Even so, the amount of cash or credit needed to start a commercial farm is daunting for a young would-be farmer.
The need for food is growing, though, and these aging farmers will need to be replaced. USDA grants for beginning farmers are a good step in making this shift. Government attention in general to this vital community need (food) is a good step. Instead of passing a the new farm bill in 2012, though, Congress extended the 2008 bill through the end of this year.
The proposed 2012 bill included the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which could provide the needed springboard by way of training programs, networking and financial assistance for young farmers. The BFRDP is currently funded at 19 million a year nationally. The Senate proposed cutting this to $17 million while the House Ag committee version would cut it almost in half, making the figure $10 million. The project is excluded from the 2008 extension; a victim of fiscal cliff negotiations.
It’s a lot to think about. Trying to chase down provisions and government decisions is mind-boggling. But. It has to be done.
With fewer farmers there will be less food. With an increasing population we will need more food.
You do the math.