December 6th, 2018

A New Generation of Sustainable Farmers

It’s an occupation as old as time. And despite the fact that the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 58, according to the last Census of Agriculture, young farmers – defined as those under the age of 40 – are on the rise.

A New Generation of Sustainable Farmers

It perhaps seems odd: 20- and 30-somethings who want to work in agriculture. But in the context of growing local and organic food movements, the rise of urban agriculture, and an increasing desire to understand where our food comes from, it actually makes a whole lot of sense. This new generation of farmers has an opportunity to reshape the food system to focus on responsible and sustainable growing practices, leverage new technologies, and reconnect people to their food.

And this is exactly what they’re doing. In a national survey of 3,500 young farmers, 75% described their farming practice as sustainable, and 63% as organic. Nearly a third of the young farmers said they follow ‘holistic management’ principles, and almost a quarter practice permaculture.

Significant Demographic Differences

So who are these young farmers? Put simply, they’re entirely different than the generations that came before them. Three quarters of the young farmers surveyed said they didn’t grow up on a farm and aren’t from farming families, while 69% are educated beyond high school. They are also more likely to be indigenous or minorities – the proportion of these groups in the survey was twice as high as in the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

In another surprise shift, more women are turning to farming as a career. Women represented 60% of respondents in the national survey, and initiatives such as the acclaimed The Female Farmer Project are documenting the rise of women in agriculture around the world.

Where New Generation Farmers Are Selling

For many young farmers, the majority of farm sales come from farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects, which sell ‘memberships’ in exchange for weekly deliveries of farm fresh produce – and occasionally goods like eggs and meat – throughout the growing season.

These farmers aren’t selling to supermarkets and large chains, but directly to their customers. This not only allows them to offer fresher, more nutritious food, but lets them get to know the consumer – and vice versa. The approach allows consumers to connect with their food and where it comes from in a way that isn’t possible when purchasing from a big grocery store.

In some places, urban farming initiatives are even enabling big-city dwellers to access farm-fresh produce, despite living miles from the nearest farmland. Brooklyn-based urban farming company Square Roots, for example, uses indoor vertical farming systems to grow nutritious, non-GMO, pesticide-free food year-round – and is teaching others how to do the same.

Challenges Abound For Young, New Farmers

But beyond the drive for a sustainable food system spearheaded by this diverse group of farmers lies big challenges, not the least of which is land access. The 2017 Building a Future With Farmers II report found that 17% of young farmers note land access as the most significant challenge to farming, of which 61% say they can’t find affordable farmland for sale and 54% say the land costs more to purchase than the value of what they can produce.

Perhaps this is to be expected, considering that a USDA report found that large farms own more than a third of all farmland in the country. Initiatives like the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and Direct Farm Ownership Loans can help address this, while providing more and better pathways for young people to secure land access and ownership will incentivize aspiring young farmers to put their plans into practice.

Whether they’re just getting started or a few years in, this new generation of farmers understands the importance of achieving a balance of social, environmental, and financial success – and they’re bringing it to a market near you.

(Read more about Qatar and OPEC’s General Meeting this Week)

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