Day 9: Too Few Farmers: A view from the United States

Every perceived ill of US farming boils down to too few farmers working to feed too many people. The challenge is to get more young people farming, and help them through the early years when they must focus on learning their craft.

By Michael O’Gorman. Founder of the Farmer Veteran Coalition

Every perceived ill of modern farming in the United States – the overuse of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, the consolidation of farm ownership, the loss of bio-diversity, the lack of good land stewardship, the containment feeding of animals, the growing of food too far from where it is consumed and the over reliance on immigrant labor – boil down to one thing: too few farmers are working to feed too many people. 

The culmination of our need to eat more healthfully, a fast-growing US population, and an aging farmer population creates a situation of tremendous opportunity and challenge in American agriculture. We need new farmers like never before and, most importantly, we need them to succeed. 

Sustaining a farm financially comes down to one basic economic equation – yield times price minus cost. In layman terms, this equation can be understood as, how much you grow or produce on a given amount of land, multiplied by how much you are able to sell it for, minus all the costs of production. 

The most difficult years for farmers are the same years that they are most lacking in experience, are most likely to make mistakes and least likely to have mastered how to raise yield and lower cost .

“Small and beginning farmers have at least one key element in their favor at the moment: the price of fuel.”

Currently, small and beginning farmers have at least one key element in their favor: the price of fuel. It now costs at least $10,000 to ship a semi-truck of fresh produce to the East coast of the United States from where it has traditionally been produced in California or Arizona. That gives farmers in that region a competitive advantage of $8 per box, on average. Add to that five extra days of freshness and the consumer’s willingness to pay more for locally grown produce, and the economic equation can justify the return of many fresh produce crops to regions of the country that had all but abandoned them.

This equation is not without its dangers. The greatest that I see is that it has many beginning farmers focus on the price side of their equation, spending more of their time and attention marketing their produce, and less on yield and cost. At the moment, new growers have the market at their back, but that can change overnight. What happens when the next big food scare isn’t from a California mega-farm but from the new young couple selling locally grown produce at a neighborhood farmer’s market? 

The other danger is that this simple equation ignores many of the higher risks inherent in producing in many parts of the country. Drought in the Midwest, flooding in the South and an epidemic of late tomato and potato blight on the East Coast, all brought many young farmers that first big wake-up call – crop loss.

“Easy access to too much money can hurt farmers in their beginning years of operation.”

This equation also raises ethical questions. Many of the new farms have built support from a small segment of consumers willing and able to pay more than market value for crops grown by local farmers. And many new farms rely on college students, who though they protest the wages paid on larger conventional farms, volunteer to work for next to nothing on the farms of their friends and peers. Much of this support from consumers and volunteers is driven by the vilification of an entire food system including those – many of them hard working family farmers and immigrant laborers – that have, albeit imperfectly, been feeding us all along. 

Here are some of the best approaches I see for helping beginning farmers today:

  1. Incubator farms. Incubator farms offer a combination of low-cost land, equipment access and infrastructure to help farmers launch new agricultural business. Incubators are often partnerships between non-profit groups, communities, municipalities and agricultural colleges, and are funded by government and private grants, donations and membership fees. They allow a farmer to start their business without a large capital investment and to gain experience, and make mistakes, without terminating their career.
  2. Renting land. Land is expensive and ownership may not be the wisest investment to make. Building equity in livestock, farm equipment or a packing facility are long-term investments that can lead to growth of one’s farm business.
  3. Aggregation. There are aggregator companies willing to sell farmers’ products for them into a premium marketplace, allowing farmers to maintain their own brand identities.This concept allows farmers to focus on what they grow well, when it grows, and most importantly, allows them to spend more time farming. 
  4. Utilizing existing markets. While many farmers are drawn to the recognition of their work given to them through the marketplace, producing for someone with an existing market is worth consideration, such as through contract farming. This may mean a simpler production program, as well as the possibility of funding assistance, ongoing training, and the option to maintain outside employment.
  5. Micro-lending. Beginning farmers complain about how hard it is to borrow money. Those of us who have ever farmed know that the paying back is the hardest part. Easy access to too much money can hurt farmers in their beginning years of operation. Smaller amounts of money tied to assistance with business planning and production mentoring may save farms from debt they cannot get out of. 

“Experienced farmers need to pass their farming knowledge on to the next generation, and we need to find ways to enable these farmers to do so.”

Three suggestions for public and private investments that I would like to see - in part because they reach beyond the current demographic of today’s new farmer – are:

  1. Paid apprenticeships on family farms. The US unemployment rate is high, especially in rural areas. These rural communities are the communities where military veterans are returning home with few employment opportunities. With modest government support, a family farmer may be able to house a young veteran, or civilian and their family, and give them valuable farm training that cannot be taught in school – tractor work, fencing, mechanics, and animal husbandry. There could even be ways for creating additional income for the apprentice’s family such as market garden plots or building equity in livestock. Experienced farmers need to pass their farming knowledge on to the next generation, and we need to find ways to enable these farmers to do so.
  2. Paying beginning farmers to grow for the needy. The current model for young farmers is one of overly complex production regimens to grow highly diverse and often expensive produce for the highest-end market. There is little incentive for beginning farmers to bring vegetables to those that need it the most. A program that would buy a farmer’s entire crop at predetermined prices, with choice-grade market standards and third-party food safety certification, would enable beginning farmers to grow produce for food banks, churches, veteran hospitals and other places that would not adversely affect the competitive marketplace. The farmer would reduce loss due to unsold product, save money though efficiency, and most importantly, spend his or her time learning to farm.
  3. Programs to make farmland and farm businesses available to traditional farm workers. Right now, most of the crops grown in the United States are planted, cultivated and harvested by immigrant farm labor. The movement to create more farmers is overlooking those that are the most trained and most likely to endure a career in agriculture, given the opportunity. A few great programs have reached out to this demographic, but not nearly enough. 

The best new ideas are going to come from new farmers themselves. Many beginning farmers in the United States are going to be land poor, starting out on smaller and often marginalized pieces of farmland. What will make them successful will not be their marketing, but their ability to learn to be good producers. It will not be easy but those that achieve it will find not only their success but what we need to survive and thrive as a nation.

Download: Too Few Farmers: A view from the United States

Share this page: