Nelson Harvey on Wednesday, Jun. 22nd
In the United States, the “family farmer” is one of our most worn and cherished archetypes. On milk cartons and cereal boxes, in ads for health insurance and pickup trucks, we honor the valiant farmers who continue the legacy of their parents and grandparents, struggling to eke out a living in the face of fluxuating commodity prices and soaring costs for seed, fertilizer and equipment. But what about those who weren’t born into the food business, who stumbled onto farming out of college, or developed an interest in it despite their urban or suburban backgrounds? A growing number of young farmers today are coming at the profession from roots like these, and although they have a much steeper learning curve than their farm-bred counterparts, they are often the ones developing original and innovative approaches to farming, constructing farms from the ground up, and taking advantage of new markets for organic and local food that are sprouting up across the country.
For these greenhorns, who lack the lifelong education of people reared in farm families, access to reliable information and guidance is a major obstacle. Enter Beginningfarmers.org, an online resource for new farmers that offers reams of technical information, job postings, and instruction on acquiring a farm, financing, and the myriad other challenges associated with making a living growing food. The site’s founder is Taylor Reid, a Doctoral Candidate in Community, Food and Agriculture at Michigan State University whose dissertation focuses on “the values and learning processes of first generation farmers.”
Recently, I got on the phone with Reid to talk about the barriers to entering farming, and why so many young people are scrambling to start growing food.
Turnstyle: What do you think are the forces driving people who are getting into agriculture today? What are they reacting to when they decide to start farming?
Taylor Reid: I think they’re typically looking for a more “genuine” lifestyle/livlihood – one that isn’t boxed off – either in the literal sense where your job takes place in a cubicle in a building, or in the broader sense – where family, work, relationships, exercise, creativity, recreation, etc. aren’t separate endeavors that have to be pursued independent of one another.
They are also looking for meaning and independence. There are lots of good paying jobs that offer little fulfillment for many because they are so specialized and so sequestered – many of the things people do for a living are a small part of a larger process in which one never really gets the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labor. Farming is somewhere where you are very close to the end product – especially local farming where products are marketed directly to consumers, which is what a lot of beginning farmers are attracted to. Plus, you’re working for yourself, not for some company or person.
There are also opportunities emerging that never existed before. With the growth of farmers markets, urban agriculture, CSA, organics, natural foods, there are markets that people can fill that simply weren’t there 20 years ago – at least not to the extent they are today. For many farmers there is also an environmental motive – and for some it is related to a sort of neo-survivalist notion that the social structures we have counted on for many years are not permanent.
TS: Did you see an increase in this sort of “neo-survivalist” thinking in the wake of the current recession?
TR: Well, people look at issues like peak oil, or the economy, which is not good, to say the least. In my father’s generation, most people got a job, and worked that job for most of their lives, and that’s not the situation today. So I do see people…looking for independence and-self sufficiency.
A lot of the jobs that are out there…I don’t know, did you ever see Office Space? A lot of the jobs that are out there are service jobs. So these people are looking for something that gives them a certain “hedge” against the potential for real social calamity. Not only is farming a job, but it allows you to provide for your family. There’s a sense of security there.
One of the appealing things about this is that the product is not a piece of paper that you take to the bank and give to the teller in exchange for many other pieces of paper, because you spent a certain number of hours working on making or filling out pieces of paper. In the process of farming, there’s something actually tangible, and something that’s so necessary, and there is a sense of security that you’ll always be needed.
TS: When we talk about new farmers, are we talking about people who are getting into agriculture as a first career, or retirees who are starting to farm as a hobby in their spare time? Or both?
TR: Both, for sure. In general there are a lot more of the latter, but the former tend to be – often have to be – more serious about the business of farming. It’s pretty rare for someone to go into farming and have it be their only source of income within 5 years if they didn’t bring some wealth with them to begin with. So there are a lot of retirees and hobby farmers, but they really need to be considered in a different category from someone who is looking to make farming their sole source of income without being independently wealthy. It’s a whole different ballgame. Both are considered new farmers by the USDA, but they tend to have very different goals, needs, resources, etc. The difference between a retiree hobby farmer and a first generation beginning farmer is much greater than the difference between the latter and a second, or third generation beginning farmer.
TS: Can you talk a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of being a first generation farmer, as opposed to someone who has inherited the trade from their parents and grandparents?
TR: First generation farmers often start out with a romanticized notion of farming that few people growing up on a farm have–though this is usually snuffed out fairly quickly. I think that the ability to build ones own farm–really your own world–is compelling, and is something that first generation farmers get that others don’t. There is also a certain wonder and satisfaction associated with figuring stuff out on your own. When you get
that first crop, there’s a sense of accomplishment that people who have seen lots of crops come in don’t have. And there is an ability to experiment, invent, and innovate that exists for a first generation farmer in a way that it often doesn’t for someone taking over the family farm. You can also decide where you want to be. You’re not “stuck” in the town or the house where you grew up.
The disadvantages are primarily financial. Farmland is expensive, and it’s hard to compete with wealthy people looking for a home in the country. It’s impossible, generally to buy the kind of large farm that one might inherit – the 800-acre Iowa corn farm. Finding the capital to get started is hard even for those who inherit farms, because generally land equity is the retirement plan for most older generation farmers. They are seldom simply passed on. Often there are siblings to be bought out, and it takes more and more acreage to make a living in conventional farming these days. So to some extent there is a myth to the notion that multiple generation farmers just get it all handed to them. But if you grew up on a farm and helped manage it, it’s much easier to get a loan, and there isn’t the same learning curve. Farming requires so many kinds of knowledge: you have to be botanist, builder, mechanic, marketer, accountant, veterinarian, employee manager, web guru, lawyer, and so many other things that it’s very difficult to obtain the whole package through a course or an internship.
TS: How does the size of first-generation farms compare to that of the average farm in the U.S.?
TR: It’s really tough to say, because the USDA considers a farm to be any entity capable of producing at least $1000 worth of product in a year. So a lot of what are considered new farmers by the USDA are hobby farmers, who might have 15-20 goats, or grow a few tomatoes or sell them on the roadside. As a result, getting numbers on the average size of the beginning farmer is very difficult. Still, USDA numbers show that they tend to be a lot smaller than established farmers.
These farmers are small not necessarily by choice. If you get into farming and you don’t have a bunch of money to invest, farmland is so expensive that you have to be small, and you have to find a way to make a living. For most of the farmers that I found who had figured that out, the way to do it was by capturing more of the food dollar through
organic production, a diversity of high value crops, using market mechanisms like a CSA and farmers markets.
This new model is emerging, but it’s emerging on the urban fringes. In a lot of the country—Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota—we don’t have these kinds of urban centers where farmers markets are a part of the landscape. The closest town might be 20 miles away, and it mostly serves farmers, who often grow their own tomato plants, so that agricultural model that I’m seeing with the farmers that I study isn’t feasible.
There is a sort of divergence happening within agriculture. There’s a lot of growth in the small organic direct market operations, but those are still a very small percentage of American agriculture, maybe three, four, five percent. Most of the growth is happening in very large farms that are growing monoculture crops for export. What we’re really losing is the farmers in the middle, who are producing around $100,000 worth of product per year, and making a living off the farm. So while the overall [number of farms] actually increased last year, most of that increase was because of very small hobby farms. The number of people who are actually making a living on the farm decreased.