By Ryan Velez
Farming is traditionally seen as a low-class profession with little financial prospects, but The Washington Post reports that there is a growing movement of younger professionals going behind the plow after becoming dissatisfied with their current jobs. Part of the trend is catering to a new movement in the food industry: a growing demand for local and sustainable foods.
“We’re going to see a sea change in American agriculture as the next generation gets on the land,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the head of the Food Institute at George Washington University and a deputy secretary at the Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama. “The only question is whether they’ll get on the land, given the challenges.” To give some numbers, The number of farmers age 25 to 34 grew 2.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the 2014 USDA census, a period when other groups of farmers — save the oldest — shrunk by double digits. In some states, such as California, Nebraska, and South Dakota, the number of beginning farmers has grown by 20 percent or more.
Surveys are showing that many of these farmers don’t have families with a background in agriculture, a sharp change from the past. Other trends from this new group of farmers include being more likely to grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify their crops or animals, and be deeply involved in their local food systems via community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets. For now, these new farmers are operating on a smaller scale, with less than 50 acres. This tends to change as they get more experienced.
By all accounts, this isn’t a mere fad. “I get calls all the time from farmers — some of the largest farmers in the country — asking me when the local and organic fads will be over,” said Eve Turow Paul, a consultant who advises farms and food companies on millennial preferences. “It’s my pleasure to tell them: Look at this generation. Get on board or go out of business.” Some are happy to see the change, considering American farmers are an aging group overall. Between 1992 and 2012, the country lost more than 250,000 midsize and small commercial farms, according to the USDA. During that same period, more than 35,000 very large farms started up, and the large farms already in existence consolidated their acreage.
These midsize and small farms are important because they can supply a mainstream market, but still adapt to shifts in the environment and demand as needed.