Commentary: Where have all the young farmers gone?

By PATRICK BULTEMA CEO of FoodMaven

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.