>New kids on the farm scene: Succession and the future of food

>Over the past couple of millennia that agriculture has been around, it’s overcome some major hurdles. Be it disease, drought or pestilence, our species has so far managed to invent our way out of trouble, keeping the food supply just ahead of the human population. Lately, though, it seems we’ve hit quite a number of limiting factors: the availability of land, water, and new variations on the genetic code that fool the pests for another generation of crops. But while we might have expected to eventually run out of space and technological fixes, another looming shortage involves a different kind of resource: manpower. Farmers are aging, and there doesn’t seem to be a new crop of them to take over the job of growing our food.
This fact was illustrated for me a couple of weekends ago, when Bob, Ann and I climbed into the old farm truck to rattle down to the Shannon farm and pick up some plastic sheeting. The Shannons run a dairy farm – the only one left in the valley, actually – and use the plastic to wrap the feed for the cows. They can’t reuse it, but the Collins find it great to lay down in the garden and keep the weeds at bay.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The sun doesn’t seem to want to succumb to the typical fall gloom here on the island, and was out warming the golden leaves of the maples lining the Shannon driveway. We pulled up to the house and knocked on the door.
The Shannons are old friends of the Collins. Before Bob and Ann quit the dairy business, they and a small cohort of other farmers constantly relied on each other for equipment parts, emergency help and moral support. Old bonds die hard, and so this visit was just as much about catching up with each other as it was about recycling plastic.
Terry answered the door and his wife, Donna joined us in the kitchen to sip Earl Grey and discuss the state of agriculture in the valley. After a bit, the conversation turned to the upcoming Christmas party organized by the Farmers’ Institute, a group that advocates for farmers and serves as a sort of social catalyst for those who often have a limited off-farm life. But neither the Collins nor the Shannons were too excited about the party this year, actually, considering last year’s disappointment. The ladies who planned the event had decided that since nobody usually danced at the party, they wouldn’t have music, either. They also put a ban on alcohol and shut it down at 9 pm.
“The good thing was, you were done early enough to get drunk at home and not have to worry about who was driving!” Donna noted.
“Maybe there’ll be more young people this year,” somebody said. Terry laughed.
“Last year, we were the young people.”
There was a time, apparently, when the Farmers’ Institute Christmas party was quite the event. Everybody came down and had a good time. Ann used to be the one in charge of planning them, and one year, she even hired a belly dancer. That was about the time some of the older folk decided she wouldn’t be the one to plan them anymore. The problem was not that everyone suddenly got conservative. It was simply that there were so few farmers remaining in the area, and most of those who did remain couldn’t handle more excitement than a hip replacement.

Lots of reports come out about the “succession” problem in agriculture, reducing the facts to dry figures. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 57. One-third of all farmers in Canada will retire before 2035. Seventy percent of US farmland – most of it owned by family farms – will be changing hands in the next 20 years. Behind those numbers, the human face of the problem was made clear to me in that conversation at the Shannons’: No more parties. No more young people. No more farmers once those who remain sell off their land – whether to developers or to agribusiness – and retire. If the land is paved over, food will have to come from elsewhere. If the land goes to a corporate farm, the control of our food supply is consolidated even further. There just doesn’t appear to be enough people stepping up to the plate. Although the whole local food trend is on the up and up, farming still isn’t quite “sexy” enough to be considered a career option by most people my age. In the popular eye, agriculture doesn’t have the prestige of law or the heroism of medicine. Not to mention what usually is cited as the most important factor: There’s no money in it. I’m not sure which of these reasons is actually causing the profession of farming to die off with my parents’ generation. But the results are immediate and self-perpetuating. Universities all over North America are shutting down agriculture programs because of a lack of interest, taking with them valuable extension offices and other services to the agricultural community. As farmers retire, they are more likely to give up their land to urban sprawl or sell it to the nearest mega agribusiness operation than pass it on to their children, who are understandably reluctant to consign themselves to a lifetime of earning less than the minimum wage (one farmer at a recent meeting here said that, all told, he earns about $5.00 an hour at his job). Because of constantly rising real estate prices and the sad truth that farmland is worth more when the crop is condos, if a young person does happen to decide on a career in agriculture, they have a hard time finding a place to do it anymore.
When the world’s population increases by a third in the next 40 years, I imagine that a lot more of us will be rushing to what’s left of our agricultural land to try to crank out some more food. We’ll probably not want to wreak further environmental havoc, so organic methods will be in demand. But who will teach us how to do it? Unless we cryogenically freeze the farmers we have today and find some way to harvest their knowledge in the future, we could be up a creek, and the brown stuff in the water will probably be more chemical than animal.

I don’t want to preach gloom and doom here. While most children of farmers go off to find employment that actually pays a salary, there are the few that hang on. In fact, the Shannon farm will soon see a fourth generation of the family take the reins. Terry and Donna’s son Josh is the next in line, and he’s committed to making the farm work for another few decades. Since Terry’s grandfather came out from the dust-choked plains of Alberta in the 1930s, the farm has weathered economic ups and downs in the region, survived the mad cow outbreak of 2006 that did in other dairy farms, and managed to expand to over 500 acres. But their story is not typical. In fact, as far as the Collins can tell, the Shannons are currently the only farmers in the region with a successor. Their position of relative financial security probably has a lot to do with that.
Still, one way or another, those who want sustainable livelihoods based on producing food are finding their way into farming. And the new generation of farmers – even if they’re smaller in number– are doing things a bit differently this time. They understand the difference between growth for growth’s sake and sustainably managing land for the long term. Today, farmers can look at historical disasters like the dust bowl and modern-day tragedies like the droughts in Australia and think twice before over-plowing and freely sucking rivers dry. Not that all farms that started before our current problems – climate change, peak oil, water shortages – started spiraling out of control were operating unsustainably. Most just didn’t know better, and when squeezed by low commodity prices, were forced to try to pump higher and higher yields out of each acre. In comparison, for farmers starting out today, it’s almost impossible not to take environmental and social equity concerns into consideration in the business plan. This new ethic is reflected in the “manifesto” of a (highly inspiring) website dedicated to cataloging young farmers in the United States, Serve Your Country Food: “[We are] motivated by a force of intention that cannot be rationalized economically, with lives driven by an instinct for direct action and stewardship that honors the planet, people, and place, we are the allies of every American.”

So there are young farmers out there, and some of them are quite radically committed to making up for agriculture’s previous errors and energizing their peers into joining the cause. This leads me to another way to view the “succession problem”: by recognizing that farming itself is changing. While farms will always be an important source of food and other agricultural products, the conventional agriculture model that requires trading hard-earned cash for food sometimes isn’t the best option. It doesn’t work, for example, for those who don’t have much cash to spare but still want – and have a right to – fresh, non-polluted food. Instead, more people are planting their own gardens, working agriculture into the urban infrastructure and finding other ways to grow food other than on traditional farms. They are farmers in their own right, although the census will never count this as their primary occupation. On the other hand, farmers are seeing more income coming from agritourism (combining tourist accommodations with farming), educational programs and value-added food production. They still produce food on the side, but perhaps they, too, are not considered “farmers” under the black and white definitions of labor statistics. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean farmers will ever be obsolete. Not every city or region is suited for agriculture, and for the majority of communities, a completely local food economy is simply impossible or impractical. For example, places like Pheonix, Arizona will probably always be better off importing their food from elsewhere rather than trying to bargain for some of its water so they can grow their own tomatoes. After all, we sustainability-pushers have to be realistic: Not everyone is going to move to a lush river valley so they can grow their own food and trade with other farmers. In fact, that would be impossible. It’s the 21st century. Compromise is key. And so is hope. Those who can’t run out and take over for aging farmers are at least becoming aware and supportive of family farms. Others, like those listed on Serve Your Country Food, are working on filling in the gaps. I, for one, plan to do my best to make the annual Farmers Institute of Port Alberni Christmas party as raucous as possible.
Update: Yes! magazine has an excellent photoessay on young farmers across America. 

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