The Next Generation of Farmers

Vaden

Here are some statistics quoted from the USDA, that might just scare you.

  • We have an aging farming population. If left unchecked, this could threaten our ability to produce the food we need – and also result in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of working lands that we rely on to clean our air and water.

  • The average age of a farmer today in America is 57 years of age. Five years ago it was 55. We have had an increase of 30% of the farmers over the age of 75 and a decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25 by 20%.

  • Beginning farmers are more likely to have a college degree and have a major occupation other than farming.

  • Only 17% of beginning farms grossed over $25,000, compared to 34% of established farms. (That’s grossed not net!)

Based on these statistics, it looks like most of the farmers are going to be retiring in the next ten years. We need to figure out how to make farming a career the next generation is happy to choose. To start with, we should ask why doesn’t the younger generation choose farming? I have gone to the Organic Grower’s School at UNC Asheville for the past three years, and I can vouch for the fact that there were kids all over the place with dreams of farming. They loved the idea of a more natural lifestyle, a simple sustainable life, independence, and making a living being outside. All kinds of kids were there learning about farming. There were hippie kids, rednecks, both men and women, and even a few that might be growing things that aren’t legal in this state. Where are they? Why aren’t they farming?

From what I can see, the biggest barriers to entry for these young farmers are experience and money. Consider that purchasing an acre of land in Union County will probably cost well over $10,000 per acre. The cost of land will limit how much they can buy. If they buy just ten acres (enough to qualify for farm tax exemption) that is at least $100,000. Times are changing, and the way new farmers farm is going to have to change. The payment on this ten acre farm hopefully won’t be more than $500, since a down payment is required to buy land. A payment like that might be manageable with some hard work and some good business practices. Gone are the days when new farmers buy 100 acres, which would be a million dollars in Union County. That means the new farmer will need to be savvy enough to grow a profitable crop and make a living on only a few acres.

Although I can’t change the price of land, I can help some young potential farmers gain the skills they need to be successful, either as a farm manager or a farm owner. Jay and I have developed a unique business that leverages my agronomic skills (M.S. Plant Pathology, Clemson University) with Jay’s business skills (MBA, Clemson University). We have both been around the farming and business block a few times. We can teach potential new farmers not only how to grow the crop, but also the business side of selling the crop. Running a successful small farm is much more than just being able to grow some kale. You also have to make money on it!

We have two high school kids and a young college graduate who work for us after school. I often think about how I can encourage them to considering farming as a career. If the two high school kids work for us until they get out of high school, they will have three years of very good farming experience. I try to involve them in the “why” of what we are doing. I don’t just tell them, “go hoe the carrots.” I specifically explain that carrots are slow to emerge and not strong competitors with weeds. This means they need our help, more than most crops, to keep their area clean. I also try to involve them in the decision making by explaining the problems and asking for their input. Often their ideas about how we need to manage a project are better (or at least as good) as mine. I have a “heads up” list in our pack-house, where they can write down any problems or ideas we need to consider. I do this because I want each of them to feel a sense of responsibility for what goes on around here, as well as have the eye of a farm owner or manager. I want more from them (and for them!) than just picking tomatoes and hoeing weeds.

I look for specific talents that each of these guys have. My goal is to be able to promote them as “Junior Managers” of certain areas. For example, Jonathan is very good at organizing and packing our CSA bags. At some point, I want him to be our CSA manager. Then in a few years, he can easily go and have his own CSA, and not have to go through the learning pain we went through.

Cullen is good a good field man. He recognizes many of the insects and lets me know when he spots something unusual or a problem. Every week he gives all of our crops a good feeding with seaweed extract and closely checks every field. I count on him to be the one who keeps things growing and catches small problems before they become big ones. I can easily see him being the operations manager of the agronomics of a farm. Not today, but someday. He has the talent.

Vaden is our picking/packing organizer. He is almost a little OCD about things, however, this works well in this role. He picks and packages what we need for our CSA, chefs, and farmers market. With great attention to detail, he labels the bags with what is in it, as well as the weight and restaurant if it is going to a chef. When I go into the cold room after he has been working all day, I see that he has neatly organized all the CSA produce, the restaurant produce, as well as the market produce. Everything is in its place, and even has a card on the bin to let me know what it is. These skills are key, because managing a small farm has a million ways of messing up. He helps keep things organized and keeps the moving pieces manageable. This is one of the most difficult jobs, and it is closest to the customer. He is the one who makes sure that what goes in the bag looks nice. I don’t know how to define the future of this role, however, I do know it is very important. Maybe his title should be “Harvest Manager”, which could eventually translate to “Harvest Crew Boss” if the farm grows to the point that we can have people helping him.

I hope these guys realize the key to all of this is the farm being profitable enough to support this type of thing. We are all working toward that goal. Recently we purchased a new 11 acre farm in Union County. Right now it is just a cotton farm. In the future, it will become a beautiful fruit and vegetable farm, and I hope these three guys are around to manage it. If we can have them in the roles I have in mind, it will give them the skills they need to someday have their own farms.

Jay and I have a goal of traveling for a week next July, and having our three farm workers completely capable of managing the farm for the week we are gone. By then, we will have been working closely with these three guys for two years. That is long enough that they should be able to manage without us. I’m a little nervous, however, I know it is the step we need to take. Jay and I need to be able to let some responsibility go, and these guys need take on more. Hope to be sending you an aloha from Hawaii next summer, and you still get an amazing CSA bag, the chefs get their produce, and the table at the Farmers’ Market looks amazing.

Come on young farmers! We are pulling for you!
Robin

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One Response to The Next Generation of Farmers

  1. Sarah Tatum says:

    Robin, Your article really made me think about farming in the future. Knowing how important the food you and Jay grow and distribute is to me makes me hope that this good food will be available to my grandchildren. Let me know if there’s any way we can help!
    Also, a question: what happens the Saturday after Thanksgiving? Toni and I will both be out of town that day. Will we be skipping that week? Or maybe we can pick up some other day and/or place? Thanks. Sarah

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