Thursday, January 7, 2010

Who will grow our food?

In a recent post from a great food and sustainability writer, Sharon Astyk, on one of our favorite sources,, comes this stunning quote:

As of 2002, the average American farmer was nearly 56 years old. The average American small farmer is over 60. More than one out of every four farmers is over 65 years old and rapidly facing retirement, and less than 6% of all American farmers are younger than 35 years old.

Astyk goes on to point out why this is so alarming: Two hundred years ago civilization used 1 in 2.5 people to farm, yet today we employ only 1 in 100 people to farm. This drift toward centralization of farming resources, which is using fewer and fewer people on larger and larger farms, has left us extremely vulnerable to large demographic shifts. And this is exactly what we are facing.

The average age of American farmers is part of the broader aging of the American population. This aging of the population might not be significant if adequate numbers of young people were pursuing farming careers. Yet they are not -- at least not in the numbers that will be necessary to replace all the farmers lost to old age. Farmers have historically grown up on farms, apprenticing at the feet of their family, learning through long experience the intricacies of growing food. As fewer younger people apprentice with older farmers, essential farming knowledge is lost.

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative was born out of a desire to grow our own food in healthy and environmentally sustainable ways. We imagine a greater role for suburban yard gardens in the food supply of our community. Now we even imagine a greater role for small home-scale gardening in the food supply of our great country. Sharon Astyk concludes that future American farmers may not come from the traditional backgrounds:

So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society -- while we've always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn't happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that's the problem we face.

In A Nation of Farmers one of the things that Aaron and I argue is that the next generation of American farmers will have to come out of the garden, and from other nations rather than off the American farm. That is, the children who grow up with some knowledge of growing things will largely fall into two categories. They will grow up with parents who garden, and teach their children to garden, and who take that set of skills and build upon it, or they will be the migrants themselves or the children of immigrants who come from cultures where agriculture is more common than it is today.

The future of American food production may no longer depend on farming families but on gardening families. Happy New Year, Rodgers Forge farmers!

1 comment:

Swamp Thing said...

Great post! Two other things worth noting:

1. Most farmers (at least on the east coast) do not own the farms they till. The question "who owns the farms?" has a pretty complicated answer.

2. Because of the current scale of farming, a lot of specialized, heavy equipment is needed. Did you know that a standard farm tractor rigged for row crop farming costs at least $50,000?
My point is that very few people (including those WORKING on farms) are eligible for loans for this type of equipment, and thus, are not registered as "farmers" with the IRS or their local soil conservation district.

I love what you're doing here in Towson, keep rockin'!