The Graying of Green: Infusing New Blood into America’s Aging Agricultural Sector

In 1974, the average age American farmer was 51.7 years old. Today, after a steady increase over the past 30 years, the average farmer is 58.3 years old. Meanwhile, the number of America’s younger farmers — those below 35 years old — has plummeted from 16 percent in 1982 to a mere 5 percent in 2012. The American agricultural sector continues to age; meanwhile, fewer young folks are flocking to the fields. What is the future of America’s small farms? Hoping to answer to this question, I spoke to several farmers from the Pioneer Valley.

According to Audrey Barker Plotkin, owner of Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst, the problem of the dwindling younger farmer population is a financial one.

“It’s not just about acquiring affordable land, which is difficult in itself … it’s [also] about the cost of buying tractors, greenhouses and other equipment … that’s the major problem,” Plotkin said. “Unless you’ve inherited land from your family, entering the farming industry racks up significant startup costs.”

Farmer Ryan Voiland of Redfire Farm in Montague agreed.

“It’s tough to afford land, if you can even find it,” he said.

Voiland said that the available farmland in the Connecticut River Valley has been shrinking due to housing developments and urban sprawl. “Now, it’s nearly impossible to find contiguous farmland, so we have several farms in Montague and Sunderland equipped with tractors,” he said. “If you look at any larger vegetable operations in the Valley, that’s the reality: All of the farmers are constantly commuting to different farms.”

The Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR) — a state program — has helped resolve the problem of shrinking farmland. APR buys a farm’s development rights so that when a farmer sells the land, it can only be sold to other farmers who plan to use it for agricultural operations. Housing developments and shopping malls offer the highest compensation for farmland, but since selling land to developments is not an option for APR-protected farms, APR steps in and compensates for the difference.

Nevertheless, for many beginning farmers, the initial return on investment is simply not there. If new farmers have to take out a mortgage to buy the land, or have to rent it along with low food prices, they will not be able to make a living. Without government assistance, growing specialty crops like herbs is the only thing that makes financial sense for startup farm operations.

In fact, specialization within small farms is becoming a major paradigm shift. America’s long-established farms (most of which have been in existence for more than 100 years), which constitute 50 percent of the sector, operate primarily in one of three categories: beef and cattle ranching, fruit and tree nut farming or “other crops” farming (2002 Census of Agricultural Data). All three of those farming operations require extensive acreage.

In contrast, today’s startup farmers can only afford so much land and machinery. This is where specialization comes into play.

That being said, is it crucial nowadays for small farmers to pivot and specialize in niche products or services? Local farmer Ryan Karb of Many Hands Farm in Amherst seems to think so. “The conventional farms in the area, which greatly outnumber organic farms in number and even more so in acreage but get far less attention, seem to be run by older farmers, I’d guess mostly as old or older than my parents,” Karb said. “A lot of people my age [30 years old] and younger are starting niche businesses specializing in less common … or premium-added value products, [like] teas, tonics, herbal stuff, or, like me, are providing services to other farms.”

Many of these smaller farms are operating as models of community-supported agriculture, or CSAs. The first two CSAs were founded in Western Massachusetts in the 1980s. In this type of business model, consumers fund a small farm’s operations by subscribing to a monthly box of produce for a small fee. In addition, when a CSA farmer encounters a tough growing season, the individuals and families who have bought shares into the CSA help alleviate the fiscal consequences of natural mishaps within small-scale agriculture.

Farmer Peter McLean of Amherst’s Book & Plow Farm spoke to the efficacy and relevancy of the CSA model.

“Last year, 490 billion pounds of food were grown, and one percent came from the CSA. Ten years ago, we had lots of CSAs popping up; now, we’re seeing half the rate of growth,” he said. “If we’ve been doing this for 30 years in this country, where only one percent of our food is grown CSAs, and we’re seeing that fewer and fewer CSAs are being started, do we think that CSAs are going to be the saving grace, or do there need to be other models? That’s where the farm to institution model comes from.” Book & Plow is one example of the “farm to institution” (FTI) model, advocated by the USDA, in which farms forge networks of reciprocity with schools, government agencies, hospitals and other institutions. The initiative was so successful in Portland, Maine, that doctors are now prescribing vegetables to their patients — both ensuring the health of their patient and encouraging them to visit the local farmer’s market.

For the consumer, CSAs are very much a social experience. It is not unlike visiting Keefe to pick up a package once a month: You run into friends, ask what they got, and maybe may even make a new friend while commiserating over the exorbitant price of your matching Intro Geo textbooks. At CSAs, meaningful relationships are nurtured not only between consumer and farmer, but also between consumer and consumer. McLean attested to the consumer-consumer relationships facilitated by CSAs.

“Instead of going to the grocery store and buying a tomato off the shelf that you don’t have any connection to, and to who grew it, you’re now going to a farm, you’re seeing what farmland looks like, and you’re talking to people,” he said.” Now, when you go pick up your tomatoes and broccoli rabe and escarole, you’re going to stand there and ask the person standing next to you, ‘What do you do with this? How do you cook this?’ CSAs help community members talk about their shared experience.”

“In the 10 years I’ve been growing, I’ve mostly noticed growers who are about 10 or 20 years older than me running CSAs, but also some growers who are my age — I’m turning 30 next week,” Karb said. In order to increase the dwindling number of younger farmers entering the agricultural sector, several legislative reforms must take place. One important initiative would be to grant new farmers affordable access to farmland, possibly by providing them with low-interest loans to cover startup fees. Another solution would be to have a training program for new farmers, one that teaches them how to employ smart farming practices.

Fortunately, the 2008 Farm Bill, in a direct effort to bring younger farmers into the agricultural sector, made significant progress in both areas by creating the Office of Advocacy and Outreach. The office provides small and beginning farmers with grants, loans and training in resource management.

It will be critical to expand the Farm Bill and other state and local initiatives aimed at preparing our next generation of food producers. One such program exists close to our college. According to Karb, there is a “diaspora of farmers coming from early established CSAs, most notably Brookfield Farm, located here in Amherst. Brookfield Farm hosts a program each summer in which farmers learn sustainable farming practices.” McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown of Amherst’s own Book & Plow Farm are successful examples of some of Brookfield’s alumni. Less successful farms, said Karb, don’t seem to have as great success inspiring their employees to start their own offshoot farms.

But policy change can only help those who have already decided to pursue the farming lifestyle. What we really need is a shift in our cultural mindset, from where it is now into one that honors the college graduate who decides to join one of the oldest occupations on Earth.

David Keith ’17 has spent numerous hours working at Book & Plow. “When I started working at Book & Plow, I considered farming to be a skill that everybody should learn to develop gratitude and an understanding of its necessity, “he said. “While my primary interests remain in politics and activism, plans always change. Farming is an alternative I could envision that would provide fulfillment, and I think it’s a career everyone should consider … I often daydream about starting a farm in the Middle East — olive oil over everything, after all — so maybe I will pursue that if/when I develop an insurmountable pessimism about changing the world through politics.”