Commentary: Where have all the young farmers gone?


Any 21st century farmer knows that farming is expensive. You could easily spend more than a million dollars on equipment alone. What’s more, you need more than just one harvester and one tractor today to be a viable farmer tomorrow.

You have to finance the inputs for the crop (easily another few hundred thousand dollars) wait to see crop income, and all the while you have to live and pay your bills. You need land, human capital, personal income, and finally to play in the industrial food system as a farmer, you need scalability.

So, what are the prospects for new, young people interested in getting into farming? One alternative is micro farming.

Meet Jenn Mueller and Ryan Murray, co-owners of Yurstead Farm, a modest 10-acre patch of land on the western slope of Colorado.

In 2015, they began growing produce using organic practices and raising select quality poultry and pigs, finding customers at the local farmers’ market and selling at premium prices.

But while Jenn and Ryan’s farm has managed to overcome impossibly high entry barriers to compete with other established farmers — their farm is not particularly scalable. The inability to meet the demands of an industrialized food system is a common problem among all farmers today.

The graying farmers
For farmers, retirement isn’t really a thing. It only happens when you physically can’t work any longer. It’s not unusual to see a farmer still “at it” well into their 80s. And my family was no exception.

Growing up I could count all the direct family entities involved in our family farm; six family units and about 15 family members, a typical family-run farm. Today, we only have two family units, and two individuals for whom farming is their primary job. By the time my grandfather, let alone my father, felt he could retire us kids were long gone — physically as well as by life circumstances.

Once, on a visit to see my grandfather after he’d stopped farming, our conversation turned to one of his friends who had recently died. This farmer had been out irrigating, lost his balance, fell on his shovel and died in the field. With the tone of a eulogy my grandfather said, “He was a good man … he was a hard worker.” In part he was saying that, in his mind, being a hard worker and being a good human being are inseparably connected. But I also recognized a part of the story my grandfather envied. His friend was the epitome of an admirable farmer, and no one could deny it. After all, he’d died at an old age, in his own field, doing what he loved.

The age of “principal” farmers today has increased from 50 to 59 years of age. Juxtaposed with this, farmers over the age of 72 outnumber farmers under the age of 30 by 5 to 1.

In short, farmers are getting older, fewer young farmers are entering the ranks, and the count of farmers is falling.

This means we face two problems. First, we have an influx of aging farmers with no one to pass the torch to; and second, 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; the development of a rigid food system.

Food for the system
By staying under U.S. Department of Agriculture limits, Jenn and Ryan have been able to raise, slaughter and process their meat without getting a full USDA processing license. Because their product is so premium, and their customers are so selective, they are able to sell at much higher than conventional prices.

However, that also means they can only sell direct to customers at places such as local farmers’ markets.

On the other hand, the industrial food system and ag policy pushed my family from diversified farming to monoculture practice. My family ended up specializing and growing only one crop: rice. Farmers face the challenge to either “go big or go home.” If you don’t “go big” you’re likely forced to sell to another family farm, or you leave farming operations and now rent your land to a bigger family farm. Unfortunately, you “go home” one way or another.

Clearly the lack of a predictable, accessible, and scalable local food system is creating a huge chasm between young farmers, like Jenn and Ryan, and today’s mainstream farming practices. Plus, the system that’s needed has to provide access for more mainstream, less specialized, and less expensive product. We need a solution that values local markets, but also allows farmers to grow product at a scale and efficiency that could be sold into the industrial food system.

Patrick Bultema is chairman, CEO and founder of FoodMaven who is known for bringing leadership and innovation to the multi-trillion-dollar U.S. food system, a system that loses hundreds of billions of dollars annually in food that ultimately ends up as waste. FoodMaven creates new pathways for food lost in the system due to oversupply, out-of-spec or local food without effective distribution channels. FoodMaven sells this food through an online marketplace to restaurants and institutions like universities and hotels and donates to hunger-relief organizations to fulfill its mission of all food used with good purpose.

Dairy puts emphasis on ‘natural’

Cherry Valley Dairy, an 80-year-old farmstead in Duvall, Wash., north of Seattle was purchased in 2005 by Gretchen Garth.

She turned the 122 acres into an all-natural, grass-based dairy and creamery employing two dairy workers and three creamery employees.

Blain Hages has been the head cheesemaker since the operation opened, AnnMarie Stickney is the land manager, Jhony Padilla is the herdsman, Meghan McKenna is the assistant cheesemaker and Brianna Best is in charge of sales and marketing.

“Our dairy is unique,” says Best. “The owner cares greatly about the land, the environment and the cattle, so we have a land manager and a herd manager. We have a herd of Jerseys with 30 milking cows as well as about 20 heifers.”

Most of the milk is processed in their on-farm creamery and sold as butter.

“We do cultured European-style butter, both gray salt and unsalted varieties. Our unsalted butter won first place in the 2018 American Cheese Society awards and our Grey Salt butter was second place. Our lavender rose butter also got first place,” she says.

“We recently started making raw cheeses along with several pasteurized cheeses such as Fromage Blanc, a soft spreadable cheese made from our fresh skim milk and fresh Jersey cream. We also make many other styles of cheese as well.”

The butter and cheeses are sold directly to customers, mainly at restaurants in Seattle.

“That’s my job. I work with all our customers and chefs to deliver these products every week. We’ve also started selling to one of the largest natural food stores in the area, called PCC Community Market,” Best says.

“We’ve done a lot of work revitalizing pastures on this historic farm, and remodeled the old barn on the property. A creek runs through our pastures and we’ve done a lot of work with one of the local Native American first nation tribes as well as our county to protect this creek and now our farm is listed as salmon safe, and the salmon have returned to this creek,” she says.

The cows are pastured most of the year, but housed in the barn during winter when it’s too wet to be out on pasture.

“This has been a working farm for 87 years and it used to have 200 to 300 cows. The barn is huge so there is ample room for our small herd to be indoors during bad weather. When the cows are not on pasture they are fed alfalfa and oat hay,” she says.

This is a sustainable grass-fed dairy, with select genetics for cows that do well on pasture. The Jersey cows in this herd lean toward A2 genetics. A2 milk is produced only from cows having two copies of the A2 gene for beta casein.

Research found that people drinking milk from cows producing A2 milk were less susceptible to indigestion.

As part of the new owner’s sustainability efforts over the past decade, the herd has been reduced to fewer than 50 Jersey cows.

“This allows us to produce all the cheese and dairy products we make in-house,” says Best.

Cherry Valley Dairy does not use bovine growth hormones, and strives to keep the cows’ diets natural and free of unnecessary antibiotics, artificial additives and harmful chemicals.

Registration open for the Oregon Small Farm School

Registration is open through July 11 for the Small Farm School, a collaboration between OSU Extension, Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, Clackamas Community College, Rogue Farm Corps and Friends of Family Farmers.

Small Farm School is a full day event with hands-on workshops and classroom sessions for beginning and small-scale commercial farmers.

It will be conducted July 18 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at in Clairmont Hall at Clackamas Community College, 19600 S. Molalla Ave., Oregon City.

Early Bird Registration through July 2 is $75. Registration from July 3 through July 11 is $85.

For more information about the schedule, and to register, visit the Small Farm School website.


Oregon bill would require cage-free eggs

A bill that would require eggs sold in Oregon to be produced by chickens in cage-free housing also passed the subcommittee on June 11, with no lawmakers objecting to a “do pass” recommendation.

The proposal, which mirrors laws in Washington and California, is supported by the Humane Society of the United States as well as egg producers who are part of Food Northwest, an industry group.

“It’s important to have standards that can apply across jurisdictions,” said Mike Freese, lobbyist for Food Northwest.

Under an amendment approved by the subcommittee, the cage-free standards would only apply to egg producers with more than 3,000 hens.

For high school student, a budding interest in farming

JEWELL, Ore. — When Daniel Kuhnly was a high school freshman, he thought maybe he’d be an engineer. It was, he said, a kind of random choice, but at the time it worked as a fill-in-the-blank to the question of what he was going to do with his life.

He has a more concrete answer now: He wants to go into farming, specifically viticulture. Grapes, winemaking, vineyards.

When the 17-year-old senior at Jewell School graduates in June, his next move is to attend Chemeketa Community College’s Northwest Wine Studies Center in Salem.

Someday, he hopes to have his own vineyard and organic farm. He is intrigued by the mechanics and aesthetics of vineyards — but, more, he is fascinated by transformation.

“A raw fruit can transform into wine, and there’s that whole process of fermentation,” he said. Then there is farming: Dry, gnarled little seeds become plants that can feed and heal people.

“I think it just comes partially from genetics,” Kuhnly said of farming, “and I just like nature. I’ve always liked being outdoors.”

His great-grandfather was a farmer. Kuhnly didn’t know him well. His grandmother in Svensen has had more of a direct influence, with her greenhouse and her yard full of plants and flowers.

Kuhnly spent a lot of time with her last year when he started working at Blackberry Bog Farms in Svensen. The farm grows fruit and vegetables and maintains a plant nursery, Scottish Highland cattle, poultry and a hop yard.

For Kuhnly, what began as an after-school and summer job became a realization. He kept wanting to learn more. He has since gone through training offered by the Clatsop County Master Gardeners. A $1,000 scholarship he was awarded by the group for students going into agriculture and horticulture will help pay for his college classes.

His senior project was to work in the school greenhouse in Jewell. At home, he constructed his own greenhouse using a former chicken coop and goat enclosure.

Neat rows of young plants line the interior of the greenhouse at his family’s home. Kuhnly’s favorite plants to grow are tomatoes, but he’s still figuring out the challenges of growing in different places, different environments.

In the forest-encircled hollow where he lives, soil quality and light are both tricky factors.

In farming, generally, “there’s so many different variables and things that can happen,” he said. “It’s always a mystery.”

The mysteries — even when they are frustrating — are what keep him interested. As he looked across the many plants he’s grown himself or has been given by other gardeners in his life, he said, “I think I’ve learned more in a year than all my years in high school.”

OSU plans ‘Crop Talk’ series for small-scale farmers

Oregon State University’s small farms program has lined up a series of “Crop Talk” presentations to take place through August.
Crop Talks are farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities, according to OSU. They include a tour of a farm and a discussion of the farmer’s expertise.
The talks will take place in the Hood RIver area and the Willamette Valley. Following is the schedule:

Thursday, June 13: Marketing Your Farm. 6-8 p.m., Tumbleweed Farm, Parkdale. Tumbleweed Farm will focus on marketing. Contact: Rachel Suits,, 541-386-3343 ext 38257.

Tuesday, July 9: Small Farm Entrepreneurship. 6-8 p.m., Lefever Holbrook Farm, Goldendale, Wash. Lefever Holbrook Farm will focus on entrepreneurship as a small farmer. Contact: Rachel Suits,, 541-386-3343 ext 38257.

Tuesday, July 9: Seed Production. 6-8 p.m., Adaptive Seeds, Sweet Home, Ore. This farm tour is hosted by Sarah and Andrew at Adaptive Seeds and will be focused on seed production. Contact: Teagan Moran,, 541-766-3553.

Tuesday, July 23: Blueberry Production. 5:30-8 p.m., Kiger Island Blues, 2322 Southeast Kiger Island Drive, Corvallis, Ore. This farm tour is hosted by Mindi Thorton of Kiger Island Blues and will be focused on blueberry production. Contact: Teagan Moran,, 541-766-3553. Cost: $5.

Thursday, Aug 8: Dairy Sheep and NRCS Infrastructure Projects: 5:30-8 p.m., The Bear and the Maiden Farm, Junction City, Ore. This farm tour is hosted by Barbara Talley of The Bear and the Maiden Farm and will be focused on dairy sheep and their NRCS Infrastructure Projects. Contact: Teagan Moran,, 541-766-3553. Cost: $5.

Tuesday, Aug 13: Transitioning orchards and understanding tree fruit varieties. 6-8 p.m., Tamiyasu Fruits, Hood River, Ore. Tamiyasu Fruits will focus on transitioning orchards to organic and understanding tree fruit varieties. Contact: Rachel Suits,, 541-386-3343 ext 38257.

To register, visit: https://extension.oregonstate. edu/smallfarms/crop-talks

Signup for Washington produce safety workshop

Three workshops in Washington state next week will help farmers adhere to produce safety guidelines under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.

The workshops are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. They are:

• May 20: Washington State University Spokane County Extension office, 222 N. Havana St., Spokane.

• May 21: Blue Mountain Action Council, 1520 Kelly Place, Walla Walla.

• May 23: WSU Extension, 97 Oak Bay Road, Port Hadlock-Irondale.

The National Young Farmers Coalition and Washington Young Farmers Coalition, serving farmers with less than 10 years of experience, will host the workshops.

The program covers practices for growing, harvesting, packing and holding fresh produce, said Maggie Kaiser, food safety training coordinator for the national coalition.

The workshop helps farmers learn what’s in the law, including those who might fall under exemptions within the law, Kaiser said.

According to the coalition, all non-exempt fruit and vegetable farms will be required by law to have at least one owner or managerial staff member on site who has attended an approved FSMA Produce Safety Rule training.

Even exempt farms will be required to keep certain records, which will be covered in the workshop.

“We encourage all growers to get educated about the rule,” Kaiser told the Capital Press. “There’s always room for improvement in farm environments for growing produce more safely.”

The training helps identify and address areas of risk on the farm, Kaiser said.

Kaiser said she doesn’t see any indication of changes to the law under the Trump administration.

“We just hope we are able to highlight some very practical and easy, inexpensive ways to implement better food safety practices on a farm,” she said. “We try to put it into what’s already happening on the farm.”

Cost is $35.

For more information, contact Kaiser at


Idaho releases guide to farmers’ markets

The Idaho Farmers’ Market Association and state Department of Agriculture have released a new guide detailing 45 locations where fresh fruit and produce, meats, honey and other locally produced foods are available this season.

The Idaho Farmers’ Market Directory is available at ISDA’s website and at state visitors centers, local chambers of commerce and all farmers markets.

“Farmers’ markets continue to be an important part of many communities in Idaho and provide access to locally grown food,” ISDA Trade Specialist Skylar Jett said in a news release. “They provide a venue for the community to come together to support Idaho’s farmers and producers as well as the local economy.”

Farmers’ markets in the state will host events in conjunction with state and national Farmers Market Week Aug. 4-10, to be detailed in coming months at ISDA said farmers markets are an excellent source of quality, local products and “truly showcase the bounty of Idaho agriculture.”

Ag Fest attracts 20,000 attendees

Weather smiled on the 32nd annual Oregon Ag Fest last weekend and nearly 20,000 children and adults were there to enjoy it.

The goal of the two-day hands-on activity-filled festival at the Oregon State Fairgrounds is to provide a fun educational experience that children — and their parents — where their food and fiber comes from.

In the Ag Country building, kids dug in the dirt for potatoes, made lotion out of sheep lanolin and watched chicks hatch.

In the Livestock pavilion, they watched herd dogs work, sheep sheared and saw and petted most of the farm animals raised in the state.

To round out a complete list of sheep breeds grown in the state, Mary Smallman, director and instructor at the Oregon State University Sheep Center, brought two student staff members, two volunteers and a Polypay ewe and her one-month-old lambs for children to pet.

“The lambs were one of the biggest draws for the kids and adults alike,” Smallman said of her first experience at the FFA-sponsored Ag Fest petting zoo. “We rotated them about every 30 minutes or changed them out when we saw they were getting fidgety.”

Because OSU has a protocol that doesn’t allow an animal that has been petted to return to the sheep center, Smallman donated the sheep to Cascade High School’s FFA “in payment for all the help they gave us during the show.”

“I think my favorite experience over the two days, and one I won’t forget, was the excited little girl who stood up straight and tall and said, ‘That’s a sheep. And when you shear her wool, she’ll be a goat,’” Smallman said. “We answered a lot of questions during the two days.”

Vern Herrick, a farmer in Springfield, Ore., and one of the 800-plus volunteers it takes to run the event, talked fondly about helping children plant the seedlings he and his wife, Paula, grow for the event.

“It is rewarding to be one of the Oregon State Grange volunteers that gets to show kids how to grow things,” Herrick said. “In our booth they chose to plant a flower or a tomato and they get to take it home. As much as I like teaching them how to do it, I like it best when they come back in the following year and proudly tell me how successful they were and how delicious the tomatoes tasted.”

Fraga Farmstead and Creamery puts goats, environment first

GALES CREEK VALLEY, Ore. — Growing up in post-World War II Germany, Elisabeth Bueschen-Monahan of Fraga Farmstead and Creamery remembers cornering older family members to ask about their involvement in the upheaval and what they could have done differently.

As global climate change continues to progress, Bueschen-Monahan said she firmly believes that her grandchildren will ask her similar questions, and she doesn’t want to say that she just drove a Prius.

“We have a responsibility that no one is taking seriously,” she said. Besides, she adds, the possibilities of pasture-based farming are some “of the most exciting possibilities.”

A small creamery with a herd of 64 goats, Fraga is dedicated to ethical animal and environmental welfare. Bueschen-Monahan also wants to help educate consumers by bringing them out to the barn and showing that there are more options besides buying conventional products and going vegan.

“People don’t know how animals are being treated and when they do know, they go vegan and that hurts small, ethical producers like us,” she said. “It’s complicated.”

A half hour west of Portland on 33.5 acres that have been farmed since the 1920s, Fraga was the first goat dairy to be certified organic through Oregon Tilth. As one of a handful of goat dairies in the state, when goat cheese rose in popularity the competition became the biggest challenge for small, artisan producers, and still is.

“There’s more competition from two sides: artisan and big producers,” she said.

Diversification is one tool that Fraga’s owners  has used to set themselves apart. They make seven varieties of cheese: Rio Santiam, a natural rind raw milk cheese aged for several months that is reminiscent of an aged cheddar; raw milk feta; goatzarella; Foster Lake Camembert; farmhouse cheese; farmhouse chipotle; and chevre three ways.

The creamery also sells goat milk caramels, which are available for purchase on their website, and their cheese is used in Amy’s Kitchen’s Bay Area restaurant. Amy’s is also an organic food producer that has products in grocery stores across the country.

“Cheese making is a lot less glamorous than people think,” Bueschen-Monahan said. “It’s mostly people doing the cleanup work. Milk can grow bacteria well, but you have to have everything squeaky clean so none of the wrong bacteria grows. Beyond that, it’s total alchemy.”

The original Fraga Farm was started in 1918 by Agnes Gloria Fraga in California. The state broke up the property in 1980 to build Highway 580 and the family moved to Oregon.

In 2012, Bueschen-Monahan with her husband and cheese maker, Steve Monahan, took over the herd when the Fraga family sold the creamery.

At the time, Bueschen-Monahan had a herd of nine goats and was selling raw milk — which is legal in Oregon if there are nine or fewer goats.

However, they wanted to grow their business, and when they saw the Fraga farm was for sale they bought the whole operation.

“We wanted a real production and we wanted one that cared for the animals’ needs,” Bueschen-Monahan said. “All the goats had names, and they were small enough to pay attention to the animals and cater to their needs.”

Bueschen-Monahan continues that practice by letting the female kids be raised by their mothers.

She bottle feeds the males because she said if all the babies drank the goat milk, by the time they were all weaned they “will have sucked down $600 worth of cheese,” but it’s important to her that the goat mothers can raise some of their kids.