Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Below is a reprint of a well written and instructive article by a young, college-educated woman who is finishing graduate school so she can become a farmer. In fact, her story is kind of inspiring, at least for fans of local farming.

The article appears in Edible Portland, one of the many "Edible" magazines.


Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture conducts something called the Agricultural Census. And every five years, once all the results are tallied—the irrigated acres summed, the number of women farmers counted, the gross revenues from hog production totaled (and much more)—without fail, an alarm bell sounds.
With no offense intended to my spunky, fiftysomething parents and their baby boomer friends, U.S. farmers are getting old. The national average has climbed to 55.3 years as of the last agricultural census in 2002 (the 2007 census is currently underway), and the trend is ever upward.
Well, big whoop, my parents are muttering as they read this. Fifty is the new 30 anyway....
Though that may be true, the sirens are clanging not only because farmers are getting older (in fact, more than a quarter of U.S. farmers are older than 65), but because young farmers are getting scarcer. A mere 5.8% of farmers are now under 35, compared to 16% in 1982.
If you’re digesting these numbers over breakfast, you might stop to wonder who’s going to milk the cows and grow the grain for your morning bowl of corn flakes.
“Africa!” hollers Steven Blank, author of the controversial book, The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, which insists that agriculture is heaving its last and final breath in America. He argues that food production sits at the bottom of the “economic food chain,” and as nations develop and land becomes valuable for other uses (like manufacturing, houses, golf courses, and high-tech industries), it makes “natural” economic sense to farm out food production to less developed countries which sit lower on the economic food chain and whose land and labor carry a cheaper price tag. Food safety, food security, and the end of cheap energy are topics notably absent from the book.
But for reasons cultural, ecological, gastronomic, and economic, there are plenty among us who balk at the notion that agriculture should ever disappear from our landscapes, or farmers from our ranks. Given America’s roots in agriculture, it’s fair to wonder how we’ve moved from the Jeffersonian ideal of independent family farmers forming the backbone of our society, to a time when federal prison inmates outnumber farmers—an occupation that has now been removed as a category from the U.S. Population Census.
Of the many headlines that attempt to explain the simultaneous industrialization and senescence of American agriculture, these are but a few:
• The combustion engine headline from the early 1900s: “Tractors & cheap energy make draft animals, people, obsolete”• The post-WWII headline: “Nerve gas & bombs reincarnated as pesticides, fertilizer: Technology replaces farmers”• The still-relevant 1970s Farm Bill headline: “Government to pay farmers to overproduce commodity crops: Prices plummet, farms forced to get big or get out”• The 1980s farm crisis headline: “Interest rates skyrocket, farmers default on debt, suicide rates surge”• The ongoing corporate agribusiness concentration headline: “Four companies control 80% of U.S. meatpacking: Monopoly control takes its toll on family farmers”• The ubiquitous credit headline: “Farming seen as high risk, lenders balk at making farm loans”• And, of course, the real estate headline: “Land prices through the roof due to development pressure”
There’s a joke that asks, “What do you call a dairy farm willed to the kids?” And the reply: “Child abuse.” Which, in addition to all of the structural, economic, political, and technological forces headlined above, points to a cultural element in this saga of farmer aging and attrition. It’s the mainstream stereotype that has come to haunt agriculture in our ever-urbanizing world—that farmers are dullards, geezers, and hicks, and that farming is what you do when you’re not savvy enough to do something—anything—else.
As often as I get a surprised, slightly perturbed look when I tell people I’m going back to farming in a few months, I am reminded of how deeply rooted that stereotype has become in various corners of our society, and how far removed most of America has gotten from the notion of farming as a viable occupation. (I’d be curious to know when a high school guidance counselor last suggested farming to an impressionable senior.)
In the urban mainstream, the connection to agriculture has boiled down to tidy, iconic, disembodied exposure: corn on the cob at county fairs, glossy images at the grocery store, and cowboy boots on the retail shelf at Ross Dress for Less. So much so that the person I’m sitting next to on the airplane has to strain to understand why a young, college-educated woman would make such an unglamorous, low-paid career choice over, say, investment banking. As obvious as it may be to me, it’s not always easy to explain to someone who hasn’t seen and smelled the mercury shatter of dew on a field of broccoli at dawn, or tended a tomato all the way from seed to sauce.
But there is also a cadre of people who do get it, and still others who are working to both break down the multiple barriers to entry for emerging farmers and increase the chance of success for newly established farms. Studies have shown that new farm businesses experience high turnover—thousands enter and exit each year—and that the most critical variable to success is experience. The handful of government and non-profit programs that target beginning farmers runs the gamut from technical production assistance to financial planning, market entry to land acquisition. And apprenticeship programs on working farms provide an opportunity for people to try their hands at farming and gain production skills.
At the same time, the agricultural renaissance sparked by the sustainable food movement, and the widespread celebration of local, seasonal, storied food, has shifted the economics to create new opportunity for farmers. For instance, Country Natural Beef, a cooperative made up of over 100 Food Alliance certified cattle ranches throughout the West, has effectively breathed new life into member ranchers’ bottom lines, and subsequently attracted 11 ranch kids back to carry on their family cattle tradition. The wisdom behind their founding motto, “Decommodify or Die!,” has gained traction among all kinds of farmers who, more and more, are finding their survival tightly bound to direct markets, value-added products, and the loyalty of conscientious eaters (like you).
There are some signs that the next generation of U.S. farmers may be gravitating more towards sustainable agriculture, with 18% of organic farmers under the age of 35, compared to 5.8% in conventional agriculture. In Oregon, where we are faced with the unnerving prospect of 25% of our farmers retiring within the next decade, numbers like these help to remind us that opportunity always attends change.
Perhaps our next generation of farmers will be known as “Gen O,” as is the goal of a recently-launched Organic Valley “Generation Organic” new farmer campaign. Given that Organic Valley farmers earn 40 to 60 percent more for their milk than conventional producers, I’d suggest that you consider joining their co-op if you’ve just inherited the much-maligned family dairy farm.
It’s possible that these new farmer programs and market forces might be related to a unique and beautiful little statistic here at home: Oregon, bucking the national trend, grew 58 new farms between 1997 and 2002, from 39,975 to 40,033. Though it’s a humble figure and causality is difficult to tease out, it’s hard to repress hope in the presence of a counter-current number like that.
One thing I can promise: Come 2008, there’ll be at least one more new farm to add to that Census tally, and not a gray hair on my head—yet.
Zoë Bradbury grew up on a farm in southwestern Oregon and farmed with Sauvie Island Organics for three years. She is now working with Ecotrust’s Food & Farms program while she completes her Masters in Rural Development & Food Systems.

1 comment:

iAMasillygirl said...

This was extremely well written. Thanks for sharing Zoe's perspective here.