Who Will Grow Our Food?

A Forgotten Career Path — Old Farmers Outnumber Young Ones by a Ratio of Over 7:1

Excerpted from the book Food Fight. To learn more about the Farm Bill and purchase a copy of Food Fight please visit www.foodfight2012.org

“If we are not careful, we could lose the farm and the food system on our watch.” That drastic warning came from A.G. Kawamura in 2005, when he was secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Kawamura was not only alluding to how important forward-thinking policy is to the food system, but also to the fact that people who grow food for a living are becoming a dying breed. Already, agriculture is greatly diminished in terms of economic measures: it represents just 1.2 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product; services make up 77 percent and manufacturing 22 percent of GDP. It’s becoming a forgotten career path as well.

Principal farm operators over age 65 now outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of more than seven to one. Over the next 20 years, 400 million acres of agricultural lands—an area roughly five times the size of all our national parks combined—will be transferred to new owners. But who will be those new owners? Youth continue to migrate out from the corn-rich “heartland” and leave agriculture altogether. Many interested younger Americans simply can’t afford the costs of entry into farming. Others won’t accept the economic instability of the job. Meanwhile, each year the United States edges toward becoming a net importer of foods; already we import more than $80 billion in agricultural products each year.

In short, we don’t have enough people becoming farmers, and we’re starting to import food to fill the gap. And yet few people are debating our flagging national food security with the fervor expressed about oil imports or manufacturing jobs shipped overseas.

Even our domestic foods are processed and distributed by an ever-smaller group of corporations. Today, the majority of our food supply is in the hands of foreign producers or CEOs—as opposed to family farmers and a diverse corps of processors and regional distributors.

With just 2 percent of the U.S. population producing food for the remaining 98 percent, the efficiency of the existing food system is staggering. In 1900 it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1990 that number had shrunk to 6 hours. Similarly, in 1929 it took 85 hours of human labor to produce 1,000 pounds of broiler chickens, but by 1980 the same could be produced with less than 1 hour of labor. Imagine someone processing 1,000 pounds of chicken meat in less than an hour. It can be hard to comprehend the scale, mechanization, and infrastructure of a system that can produce 9 billion meat chickens every year.

While such efficiency is impressive, it comes with costs and trade-offs. Fewer hours of labor means fewer farmers. Fewer farmers means more consolidation, less diversity of crops, vacated rural communities, and reduced food security.

100,000 New Farmers

Graphic courtesy Watershed Media

In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack introduced the idea of using Farm Bill programs to add 100,000 new farmers (an echo of a Clinton-era program to add 100,000 police officers to the nation’s streets). Given population trends, however, these newcomers would barely begin to replace the aging farming generation. Still it’s a step in the right direction. More farmers and food systems workers could mean a new generation of stewards of the land and a vessel for the skills and traditions of agriculture that are at risk of being lost. A concerted new farmer program could help to increase the number of small and mid-sized farms, boost food entrepreneurship, and reverse poverty in rural areas. Job creation—increasing the number of farmers—seems certain to be central to future Farm Bills. It will surely become part of Farm Bill rhetoric to justify ongoing agricultural policies as well, especially as budget constraints take center stage.

The push for more farmers is finding support in the surging nationwide interest in local food production. These local food systems cover a great deal of ground: farmers who grow food; school and institutional cafeterias that purchase it; processing facilities that add value to fruits, vegetables, and meat and dairy products; chefs and agropreneurs developing new cuisine and products around local foods; new markets and distribution networks that link producers and eaters. Rebuilding local or regional food systems does not mean an end to international food trade, as some often suggest. It merely means restoring some geographic and seasonal balance to food production. In an era of growing populations and increasing climate uncertainty, food producers will be more closely interconnected than ever before.

The Food Hub

One example gaining traction in Farm Bill circles is the Regional Food Hub. This is a centralized facility where local produce and animal products are aggregated, stored, processed, and distributed. There are already more than 100 operational food hubs around the country, with large clusters in the Midwest and Northeast. The average food hub generates $700,000 in annual sales, along with an estimated 13 jobs. This means new marketing opportunities for local farmers, as the average food hub is supplied by 40 small and midsize farms. Food Hubs are a prime example of applying new approaches to management, technology, marketing, and infrastructure to revitalize traditional food production arrangements. Farmers receive a fair price for their products and consumers value the quality of their food and the experience of interacting with and supporting local farmers.

There are other signs of hope for the next generation of farmers. Innovative partnerships are combining local, state, and federal programs to establish revolving loan funds and forgivable loan funds to help new growers get started. The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills contained several provisions to assist beginning farmers and ranchers—and USDA leaders have shown a renewed interest in young farmers. Yet many of these programs initiated by the recent Farm Bills, such as the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program either remain underfunded or are still sitting on a shelf waiting to be enacted.

To keep agriculture healthy into the future, subsidies will need to benefit the young and beginning farmer as well as the older, well-established or corporate farmer. Direct Payments—because they are based on historical baselines and not current farming practices—lock potential farmers out of the system unless they can afford to purchase land already receiving payments. An alternate payment scheme that better rewards hard work, crop yields, and conservation practices would draw more beginning farmers into the trade.

What’s On Your Plate?

Consumers could do their part in local farm job creation by eating their daily recommended allotment of fruits and vegetables. The USDA has estimated that only one in five Americans actually eats five daily servings of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Depending on the season, many Americans increasingly rely on farmers from other countries to keep them supplied year round with tomatoes, apples, and berries. According to a 2006 USDA study, if Americans increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet the USDA dietary recommendations, the U.S. would need an additional 13 million acres of “specialty crops.” That’s more than three times what the country currently devotes to fruit and vegetable production and slightly more than all the acres in California currently under crop, orchard and vineyard production. One has to wonder what an impact that would have on new farmers and emerging food hubs around the country.

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