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Why do Young People Choose to Become Farmers?

Updated on May 26, 2012
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An interest in food and agriculture has spread like wildfire, particularly in universities. In certain parts of the country professors and farmers will attest to the rise in numbers of first generation farmers. They call us back-to-the-landers - the generation of suburban and urban raised farmers that grew up with very little connection to their food chain, who are now shirking the office for the chance to get dirty and physical. But if it's true, why are more young educated people attracted to farming? Is it a trend, or part of some larger social movement? Is it to rediscover a connection to the earth? A desire to be rooted somewhere, when we live in a society where people move so much? Is it due to a growing environmental awareness or is it more influenced by the economic recession? Or is it merely our angsty subconscious needing to rebel against our parents and their baby boomer values?

Changing Economy

I think it’s a combination of all of the above, but a big part could definitely be that a college degree is not what it used to be. I get the impression that a college degree once meant that you had the power to jump hoops, to pursue more elite positions, and were also expected to set your sights on big chairs in big offices. Now, my brother’s college graduation keynote speaker talks about the disillusionment found in the real world, and to prepare for failure.

Well if a college degree is becoming less powerful on the job market, there is certainly a demand for having more young people involved in agriculture - currently the average age of the American farmer is 57.

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I have occasionally felt small shadows of guilt: did my parents really pay for my Ivy League education so I could become a farmer? But growing food has become such a pop culture trend that I don’t wallow in these thoughts for long, but instead worry whether I’ll one day be one of the “cool kids” that has her own chickens and makes kombucha.

Growing Concern for Sustainability

A fair amount of young farmers are driven to the profession by their ideals and concern for sustainability. Authors such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, John Jeavons, and George McKay, have connected agriculture to the larger ills of the world: climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, hunger, obesity...to name a few.

The term back-to-the-landers implies that we are returning to what our great-grandparents were doing at the turn of the century when over half the US population lived and worked on small farms (now it's only 1-2% of the population).[1] But the farming of my generation is not a reversion to the small family farm of our grandparents, it’s a different beast entirely. Organic farming and new sustainable eco-agriculture techniques are on the rise and are being heavily experimented with, making the profession feel like an uncharted frontier. An increase in cooperative farms, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers markets, and urban agriculture, have all made farming more appealing for young professionals looking for a greater sense of community and locality. Essentially, sustainable farmers are the next wave of pioneers: the West will be Won all over again, but in a whole new fashion.


[1] USDA. Economic Research Service.

But...it's hard work

However, if it were only ideals that were powering young farmers, they would all quit after a week. From my past farming jobs I can tell you there are plenty of times that your back is hurting, you’re dead tired on your feet, and all you want to do is stand in the sprinkler to escape the heat. At times like this you ask yourself why you made this choice - what drove you to such laborious work. You start thinking industrial agriculture – in which your labor would consist of driving a huge tractor across a monoculture of corn – is starting to sound a lot better. Also for a lot of starting farmers the change in lifestyle takes getting used to. Your schedule will be waking up early and going to bed even earlier. After work you no longer run, go to yoga or the bars, and even little chores feel mountainous cause you’re just so darn tired.

Some farmers are younger than others!
Some farmers are younger than others! | Source

Seeking a Deeper Connection to the Earth

But with the pure physicality of it comes the beauty of farming - I never felt so close to my work. Nothing I’ve done has ever felt more practical, relevant, important. You know that your meat comes from a live animal, but you don’t Really Know It, until you’ve bottle fed calves, watched them gain a pound a day, watched them learn to eat grass, and seen their cud come up green around their mouths as their rumen develops.…you learn all this about them, and you learn what they feel like alive: their fur, their warmth, their twitching skin. The results of your work are far more tangible and visible than many office jobs, and your body feels it.

Young farmers these days often didn't grow up being taught the skill at home. This leads to a rise in things like the number of farming apprenticeships/internships, and WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in which people volunteer on organic farms around the world in exchange for food and housing.

The Difficulties Faced by Young Farmers

Unfortunately even if it's worth it young farmers face many economic barriers. A National Young Farmers’ Coalition survey found that affordable housing, access to land, and health insurance were the biggest barriers to starting up. And once you’ve started, staying in business is a struggle. At the farm where I’m currently working, three farmers in a row tried and failed to get an operation off the ground, before it was turned into a nonprofit educational farm.

Young people are ready, but the agricultural policies of the past make it difficult for them to get a hold. In the meantime, we'll be struggling our darn'dest to take back over the fields, redefining the land and the farming profession one acre at a time.

Early morning at the farmers market in Brest, France, where I WWOOFed for several weeks.
Early morning at the farmers market in Brest, France, where I WWOOFed for several weeks. | Source

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    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 4 years ago from Escondido, CA

      A fantastic article. Thank you Tara. I'm thinking of Margaret Mitchell now . . .

      Shar3ed

      tim

    • Born2care2001 profile image

      Rev Bruce S Noll HMN 4 years ago from Asheville NC

      Hi Tara!

      It's more than a trend...it's a necessity and one I am so happy is catching on with people. You hit is so on the head. You are part of the new frontier, a pioneer in a sustainable life. Let me repeat, a sustainable life and if you love it, love the land, love the feeling you derive from providing beyond yourself, I'm ecstatic for you.

      I have worked middle management positions for corporate America for more than 40 years, mentored hundreds of young people to help them find something they can sink their teeth into and frankly, widgets are hard on the dental work.

      Bravo to you and to your compatriots who dare to look beyond today. We need you. Stick with it, the followers and the hungry will eventually understand.

      My wife and I moved to Asheville, NC a couple of years ago to be a part of a growing sustainable community. (We're not there yet, but the idea is growing. Pun intended) And, because my desire is primarily to mentor young men I am seeing them gravitate to the life you eloquently describe here.

      Again I say...Bravo.

      Voted up and vigorously shared on my networks!

      Sincerely,

      Bruce

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 5 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      I think it's wonderful that young people are recognizing the value of farming now and willing to start doing it! It wasn't all that long ago that kids of farmers were doing everything they could to get away from the farm and do some other job . . . any other job. Family farms were being lost to the agribusinesses because there was no one left to farm them when the old folks died. Next trend: Permaculture. That's where you'll get the really big yields.

    • Tara McNerney profile image
      Author

      Tara McNerney 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      Danette you're so right, it is very frustrating why we can't pay our farmers better. I wonder what the solution is? I think that government subsidizes food processors and food at the grocery store, but not smaller farmers. Maybe government should just have a blanket policy of supporting all farmers, since food is such a crucial human need/right? (like healthcare). Or do we need to get used to paying more for our food? Americans pay the smallest percentage of their paycheck out of anyone in the world (around 11% I believe). The funny thing is, as food gets more expensive it starts making more sense to people to grow their own food, resulting in more backyard farming.

      Sadie that's so neat that you teach your kids about goats and chickens and farming! It's incredibly practical teaching your kids to feed themselves, learn independence, and where food comes from. I read your article on goat care because it's my dream to one day own my own. =) It was very useful! Thank you.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Great hub on an important topic. I don't know if you've read any of my hubs about La Vista CSA or not. I'm not only a shareholder but also a core group member and closely involved in the farm operations although I don't always work in the fields. But I'm out there enough and in contact enough with the farmers to know it can be back breaking grueling work.

      I just had a conversation about this with Crystal our farmer's wife, who had gotten very little sleep the night before because of tending to children's needs and then was up at 4:30 to be in the fields before it got too hot. She too was wondering why they do this but the pull of the land, growing food and sustainability practices are too great for her and her husband (as well as our previous farmers) to give it up.

      We strive to pay our farmers a good wage although we operate on a shoestring. If the farm were a person, the farm would be living hand to mouth. It's discouraging at times as we struggle to find applicable grants and donations. Big Ag gets the money, small farms don't.

    • sadie423 profile image

      sadie423 5 years ago from North Carolina

      This is one trend I don't mind being part of, and I am glad that the younger generations are starting to care more about where their food comes from and taking care of the earth that provides it. I worry about some of the younger generations, the ones just now coming out of high school that have a high sense of entitlement and poor work ethic. I hope they follow on this trend of going back to the land. And for now, I will raise my children as the "cool" kids with goats and chickens and a knowledge of all things grown