Why do Young People Choose to Become Farmers?
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?
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.
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). 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.
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.
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.