Monday, January 9, 2012

Economy and Agriculture: The Present

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average farmer is 57 years old, which is a pretty scary number when you think about it. The average farmer is less than a decade from retirement? Yikes.

But there were also some surprising - and exciting - statistics to be found as well. The 2007 Ag Census found an increase in the number of farms for the first time since World War II. These new farms tend to be smaller - an average of 201 acres and $71,000 in sales, compared to a nationwide average of 413 acres and $135,000 in sales. But here's the kicker - the operators of these new farms are younger as well, averaging 48 years old, nearly a decade younger than the typical farmer.

These statistics reflect a growing movement in what is known as "Generation Organic", the new infusion of young people into the farming world through organic agriculture. Organic food, which has been growing 20% annually since 1990, is the fastest growing sector in agriculture, which puts these young farmers into a very influential position.

But despite these encouraging numbers, the road has not been easy for them.

A 2011 survey by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, released in November, questioned 1000 young, primarily organic farmers from across the country to discover their biggest concerns.

The study found that "lack of capital" ranked first and foremost among young farmers' problems, with 78% of farmers listing it as an enormous hurdle. Another 40% of the responders listed "access to credit" as their number one challenge. Access to land is another problematic area, with 68% naming it as the biggest issue for beginning farmers. (Reflecting this, the study showed that 70% of farmers under 30 were renting their land, as compared to 37% of farmers over 30.) Third on the list was healthcare, clocking in at 47%.

On the more uplifting side of things, the study discovered that apprenticeships and internships on farm are considered the most valuable resource for new farmers, followed by local partnerships (e.g. creating local farmers markets) and CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture). Also considered important were land-linking programs and non-profit training and education.

The study goes on to look at what we should be doing to encourage and support beginning farmers. Many of the recommendations focus on policy at the federal, state and local levels. They include continuing and improving credit opportunities for new farmers, addressing land access problems, and expanding training and education for beginners, among others. (Many of these issues could be addressed in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill.)

On a community/individual level, the study recommends starting or joining a CSA, shopping at local farmers markets, sourcing food at institutions like schools and hospitals from local farms, and selling or renting your land to a beginning farmer.

Although it's easy to be disheartened when thinking about all the obstacles, it's important to remember that there are options out there for this new wave of young farmers. These resources take time and effort to dig up, and often you need to figure out where you want to live before you can take advantage of them. But they are there, and they're available... and in my experience, the best way to find them is to start talking to other farmers, who have experience and contacts they can provide.

I've compiled a list (ever-changing, of course) of resources under my Helpful Links page. If there is anything you would like to see there that is not yet listed, drop me a comment.

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