I read a lot of stories in mainstream media about agriculture, our food system, and nutrition, but an episode of On Point on NPR a few weeks ago was the first time I’d heard an in depth story about farmers of my generation. The episode was inspired by an article in the Washington Post I’d missed by food policy writer Caitlyn Dewey, who On Point host Anthony Brooks had as a guest for the show. Usually the food and agriculture related news I consume is about industrial agriculture, wide swaths of GMO corn or soy, the latest driverless tractor technology, the latest food replacement product (Soylent, etc.), or something about how much farming has changed over the decades and forced farmers to get big or get out. These reports tend to fail to present alternatives to the grave state of industrialized agriculture, and the failure to outline alternatives suggests that there are none.
So I was pretty excited about this episode of On Point. The whole show was digging deep into what they labeled a trend, but what I prefer to think of as a movement, of millennials leaving cities and desk jobs for a life on the land. Anthony Brooks opens the show saying, “For only the second time in the last century the number of American farmers under the age of 35 is increasing.” Think about that. It seems silly and obvious, but farmers are responsible for our food. Supermarkets disconnect us from that fact, but every bit of food we eat comes from a plant or an animal that someone took care of, most likely a farmer, and this statistic tells us that new farmers are, by and large, not really a thing. Another statistic on the show, highlighted by Dewey, is that the average age of American farmers is nearly sixty. If we want to keep eating, we’d better change that.
The jump in farmers under the age of 35 is exciting, even if the number is tiny (2.2% according to Dewey’s article, which reveals some other much less exciting statistics regarding how many farmers are going out of business, but I won’t get into that today, read for yourself). Brooks calls it a boomlet, and discusses the kinds of people being drawn back to the land and the reasons behind it with Dewey and guests John and Halee Wepking of Meadowlark Organics. Dewey cites the appeal of the culture of small farming, and the way young farmers quickly feel a spiritual connection with the land and their work.
That’s a feeling I can relate to. Within a couple of weeks of my first farming job I knew I’d found a true calling. Something I’d never felt before. And when I started meeting other small farmers, young and old, I knew I’d found my people.
Dewey also explains that these new young farmers have a different approach to farming than their forebears. They’re more focused on organic practices, limiting fertilizers and chemicals, Community Supported Agriculture, and largely local sales channels like farmers markets and small restaurants and grocery stores. They want to de-industrialize farming and re-localize it, bringing people closer to the food they consume and the people who produce it.
I would clarify that the movement away from industrialized agriculture doesn’t mean a movement away from efficiency. New tools and methods are developed all the time for small-scale farmers to improve efficiency and help increase profit margins, and they’re shared at countless small farm conferences around the country every year. (Speaking of tools, check out this amazing example, the Paper Pot Transplanter, modeled by a suave French-Canadian who's something of a small farm celebrity). The answer to inefficiency in farming just a few decades ago was to scale up operations, move away from diversified vegetables and livestock to monoculture, and use big, expensive machinery and infrastructure. The problem with that is that machinery and infrastructure and land costs have all gone up at the same time as food prices have gone down, trapping farmers in a cycle of debt. Efficiency on a small scale can be achieved with simple tools and smarter operations layouts.
Anyway, back to the show.
They discuss the main obstacle to beginning farmers: land access. Agricultural land is often prohibitively expensive, and the student loan debt that sometimes seems to define my generation often precludes access to other loans. The Wepkings share how they happened to find an ad from a farmer nearing retirement who didn’t have children to pass his operation on to, but wanted to find young farmers willing to work with him and eventually buy him out of his business, and that’s how they’re currently running Meadowlark Organics. This kind of situation is difficult to find - for farmers nearing retirement their children often don’t want to take over the business, and it can be easier and more profitable to sell off their equipment and then sell the land for development. The Wepkings were lucky to find someone who was unwilling to go that route, or at least who wasn’t pushed into it yet, and he was just as lucky to find them.
One caller, a farmer, brings up the fact that farming is near the top of the list of most dangerous jobs. This list from USA Today has farming at number 7. He says farmers deal regularly with livestock, high voltage, welding, vaccines, heavy machinery, chemicals, and even firearms. I would add chainsaws, tetanus risk, and ladders to that list (I’m not a huge fan of ladders…). When Anthony Brooks asks him if he still feels passionate about farming, if he’s still glad he’s a farmer, the caller says, without missing a beat, “absolutely, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Another caller, not a farmer, says that of developed countries, the US spends the least amount on the dollar on food, especially compared to European countries. He suggests that undervaluing food has undervalued farmers, and I tend to agree. Remember what I said before about supermarkets disconnecting us from farmers? Well it’s right along the same line. You don’t have to think as much about things that don’t cost as much, just like you don’t have to think about the farmer when you can go into a supermarket to buy perfectly packaged and presented food. When organics started hitting stores and people saw how much they cost it was all they talked about. I know first hand - I worked in food co-ops for years and never got through a day without multiple customers complaining about how expensive organic food is. But over time that mostly died down. The price difference has stayed pretty much the same, but the organic label got people talking and thinking about their food and where it comes from, and I would argue that wouldn’t have happened without the price difference. The caller goes on to say that because food and agriculture are the basis of our society (he says this is the case because, “without it we’d be dead,”) devalueing it and the people who produce it is at the core of the staggering economic inequality we see today. An interesting thought.
This show was encouraging to me. It covered more than what I’ve written about here, including advocacy groups for small farmers, ideas about a Farm Bill that would include small farmers, how to incentivize a new generation of farmers to bring that average age down from what should be near retirement age, and there’s all kinds of related reading from Caitlyn Dewey, who has a whole lot of articles about food policy and modern farming in the Washington Post.
I think that the conversation that started with complaints about prices of organic food and turned into more thoughtful grocery shopping, which reflects an understanding of how unhealthy and unsafe conventionally grown crops and livestock can be, will turn to a conversation about how to promote and support the small scale, localized farming that will keep healthy food available. And I think that this episode of On Point, and a smattering of stories by Caitlyn Dewey and others like her, is a great place to start.