by Jason McCobb
Generation-Y is the largest population since the Baby Boomers. Also known as
the Millennial Generation, they make up 30% of the 300 million plus people living in the U.S. is growing at an alarming rate such that by 2050 we will require 70% more food production just to feed the population. The average age of farmers today is 57 and there has been a 20% drop in farmers 25 and under. The writing is on the wall for the future of food and something must be done.
In 1935 we had 6.8 million farms in the U.S. feeding 127 million people; today we have around 960 thousand farms feeding over 300 million people. Going back even further to 1790, U.S. population was a little over 3 million and farmers made up 90% of the workforce. Since 1935 the farms have grown in size thanks to mechanization and the land to farmer ratio has drastically changed from 27.5 acres per worker to 740 acres per worker, making farming one of the most tedious jobs in the world. Imagine sitting behind the wheel of the modern day tractor with GPS and auto pilot, you just set it off in the row and it will hold its course automatically. The farmer will drive each row (miles in length) and turn around and do it again multiple times throughout the growing season, once to prepare soil, fumigate and fertilize, another time to plant, then again to spray pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, and the final pass is to harvest. This profession has gone from a man working the land using skills and senses to one of simply following predetermined schedule of when to spray and harvest, without even getting your hands dirty. It is no wonder that the next generation wants nothing to do with the family farm and the fastest growing groups of farmers are over age 65. In fact, for every one farmer under 25 years old there are five over 75 years old according to U.S. Agriculture statistics. It is disheartening to see that we have more people in prison (over 2.2 million incarcerated) than farmers growing our food.
What’s the answer?
What is the best way to romance the next generation to want to farm? Basically today the farmer is faceless and their customers are just numbers, another sale. The farmer has no idea who is buying his or her harvest. Yes, I said “her”. Women are back at the helm of growing food just like during WWII, the Victory Garden Era. Maybe female farmers will save us? The number of women working as farmers has increased 30% and there are over 300 thousand female farmers in the U.S. today. In fact, when I did a farming internship in Sonoma, CA in 2009, out of fifteen of us, only four were male.
I am not sure they are doing it to recruit the next generation of farmers, but cable TV is changing the image of the farmer. Farm Kings is a popular reality show on the cable channel known as Great American Country (GAC). This Pennsylvania farming family of 11 is headed by the mother “Mama Bear Lisa” and her 9 boys and 1 girl. Maybe sex appeal will entice the next generation to farm. I have heard a number of people mention this show, mainly women, because of the 9 good looking King boys running around with no shirts on, doing farm chores.
Whatever it takes to get exposure and a new identity for the farmer, after all, it is for the greater good. Right?
I farm, build gardens for people, and teach agriculture. My experience has taught me that people are intimidated by farming because of the science and chemistry associated with growing.
Furthermore, most available instruction follows the conventional farming model and uses chemicals that concern people. Organic supplies are harder to source and are somewhat limited. What most don’t realize is that farming is only 50% science, and the other 50% is art. I farm and teach how we farmed 100 years ago, making compost, using worms, and liquid concoctions I brew myself for use on the soil, never anything that harms. Of course we are talking small scale, 20 acres or less, but this is challenging, fun, and more profitable. A large scale corn and soy bean farming operation will gross approximately $1,300 per acre per year, which does not cover their cost. So they have to rely on subsidies from the government. What a ridiculous concept of having to rely on the government when the small scale diversified vegetable farmer can gross $20,000 per acre per year by growing a variety of veggies and bringing them to market themselves.
Hopefully, Generation Y can fill in the gap and start making that connection between profitable small scale organic farming and providing a sustainable loop within their own communities.