Beginning Farmers: The Current Situation, and the Need for New Research and Resources
By Taylor Reid (beginningfarmers.org's Administrator) Over the past century, the percentage of the U.S. population actively engaged in agricultural production has dropped to less than 2%. The average age of American farmers is also steadily increasing, rising from 55.3 years in 2002, to 57.1 years in 2007. And the number of principal farm operators over the age of 75 increased by 20% in that same period. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that the number of operators under 25 decreased by 30% over that time (USDA-NASS, 2009). Evidence suggests that the net decline in farm numbers “…[is] accounted for primarily by slow or declining rates of entry into farming, rather than by a high or by an increased rate of exit from farming” (Buttel, Jackson-Smith et al., 1999 p.2, emphasis in original). Barriers to entry for young farmers raise concerns about American food security, agricultural sustainability, and the effectiveness of existing programs meant to help new entrants begin farming (Dodson and Koenig, 1995). The most recent census data show a significant level of new farmer entry, primarily on small farms (less than 100 acres) (USDA-NASS, 2009). Yet the cause of this trend and its potential durability are poorly understood. The practice of farming is fraught with innumerable risks and challenges, is physically demanding, and requires long hours. It offers little possibility for providing the level of economic remuneration or social status which most in our society have come to associate with personal fulfillment and success (Diener, Oishi, and Lucas 2003). As a professional choice, farming remains decidedly outside of the mainstream. Over the past several years, research institutions, government agencies, and non-profit groups have increasingly focused attention on developing programs which promote new farmer education and establishment. Several Land Grant Universities have established student farms and farmer education curricula. A significant number of new farmer training programs are also emerging from private organizations like the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota and a number of other organizations who have adopted their Farm Beginnings Program curriculum; Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin; and the New England Small Farm Institute to name but a few. Public Universities such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, UC Santa Cruz, and others have been part of this trend as well. Many states have developed targeted loan programs for new farmers. And the 2008 Farm Bill includes significant increases in funding for Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Programs.
These efforts should clearly be lauded. But although they are encouraging and absolutely necessary, they are just beginning to take hold. And there is no indication that they will, by themselves, be effective in facilitating the large scale increases in new farmer entry and retention needed to rebuild a truly sustainable food and agricultural system. In order for new farmer development efforts to be useful and to proliferate, we must build on the successes and the lessons that these programs have provided. We also need to work diligently to help them identify and connect with the right audience, provide it with the most appropriate and realistic information available, and target resources toward the areas of greatest need and potential efficacy.
To this end, new research needs to focus on the strategies, processes, and innovations that new farmers actually use to establish successful operations. In particular, this involves developing a meaningful understanding of who these farmers are, the ways in which they understand themselves, the processes through which they make decisions about how to farm, and their relationships with the structural, personal, social, and normative elements which inform and influence these decisions.
Hopefully, my own doctoral dissertation project on first-generation farmers in Michigan will be a step in this direction, but a small one to be sure. There is clearly a need for more research, collaboration, accounting, and data collection in this area. And we must work together to try to build on the valuable resources and programs that are currently emerging in order to develop the information resources necessary to promote the successful establishment of a new generation of farmers we will need to secure a sustainable, healthy, and functional food system for the future.
Buttel, F.H.,Jackson-Smith, D.B., Barham, B., Mallarkey, D., and L. Chen (1999). Entry Into Wisconsin Dairying: Patterns, Processes, and Policy Implications – PATS
Research Report No. 4. Program on Agricultural Technology Studies. University of Wisconsin, Madison: 13 pp. Diener, E.,Oishi, S., and E. Lucas (2003). “Personality, Culture, and Subjective Well-Being: Emotional and Cognitive Evaluations of Life.” Annual Review of Psychology 54:403-425.
Dodson, C. and S. Koenig (1995). Young Commercial Farmers: Their Financial Structure and Credit Sources. Agricultural Income and Finance Situation Outlook Report, USDA Economic Research Service. 56: 40-44.
This article was originally published on About Harvest