Starting a new generation of farmers

Paul McKenzie, N.C. Cooperative Extension
Mar. 03, 2014 @ 10:55 AM

A hundred years ago, it was fairly easy to become a farmer. Over 90 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms, so chances are you grew up on one and learned the ropes from the get go.

In recent decades, however, the average age of a farmer has been steadily increasing, as the children of farmers have often chosen other careers. The grueling work of raising crops and livestock may seem less attractive when so many opportunities are available.

You might not think this is a big deal, except for one thing. I suspect almost all of you like to eat. Have you seen that bumper sticker that says, “No Farms, No Food?” Well, until robot technology advances quite a bit, we can modify that to say, “No Farmers, No Food.” As our aging farmers begin to retire, we could have a problem.

I have seen some encouraging signs. Although farming will never cease to be risky and demanding work, crop prices have been decent in recent years. My own, non-scientific observation is that more young folks are staying on the family farm.

Will it be enough to ensure the future of our food supply? Time will tell, but if you want to have a discussion about national security and economic prosperity, this would be a good place to start. I suspect our nation needs a major farmer recruitment effort.

While taking over the family farm from your parents would be challenging, imagine the aspiring farmer who grew up in the city or suburbs (and yes, these people do exist!). The former will stand to inherit land and equipment, not to mention benefit from an experienced mentor.

Did you hear the story about the wealthy farmer who got his start in his parents’ suburban garage? Neither did I.

Fact is, even a small farming operation requires an investment of tens of thousands of dollars for land, equipment and facilities. Not that it’s impossible for a passionate and energetic entrepreneur to overcome that obstacle, but it is a big one. If only there was some way to match our aging farmers with young entrepreneurs with an interest in agriculture.

This idea of matching retiring and aspiring farmers is not a new one. But it’s a complicated endeavor, involving questions of financing, estate planning, ownership and more. One encouraging sign is the growing interest in locally grown food. This presents opportunities not only for large farmers, but also for someone with just a small amount of land and minimal equipment. I certainly wouldn’t sell this as a “get rich quick” scheme, but could I interest you in “gradually develop a source of supplemental income”? And there are plenty of stories of side businesses developing into full-time enterprises.

Our new farmers market (just off Beckford, near the Social Security office and opening this spring!) has the potential to address many of these issues. Small-scale farmers will have an opportunity to develop those “supplemental income” enterprises. Larger farmers can expand sales and production. The market can also serve as a community learning center, providing education and resources regarding these important farm transition issues.

The issues surrounding the future of our nation’s agriculture are complex, but they affect us all, or at least those of us who depend on food.