A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, I ATTENDED A SCREENING of Growing Farmers, a short film about the new generation of farmers on Long Island and the challenges they face. After the film, David Haight, of the American Farmland Trust, told the audience that there are five times as many farmers in the U.S. today over the age of 65 as there are farmers under the age of 35. (These numbers have particular resonance for me since I happen to be one of those in the first cohort; having recently passed my 69th birthday, I know, with increasing certitude, that my farming days are numbered.)
This aging of American farmers and the low rate of replacement are nothing new—these trends have been in effect for several decades, at least in conventional agriculture. The reasons are fairly obvious. Modern farming in this country is notoriously capital intensive, demanding and risky. Squeezed between giant food conglomerates, international pricing systems and erratic weather patterns, today's farmers often end up with a very meager slice of the food-dollar pie. Moreover, a career in conventional agriculture seldom brings much pleasure and satisfaction. The average participants usually find themselves weighted down by debt, at the mercy of the marketplace, and dependent on an arsenal of expensive and often dangerous chemicals--all of which tend to suck most of the fun out of farming. It's hardly a surprise, then, that the sons and daughters of aging farmers usually take a pass when it comes to continuing in the family business.
Thankfully, there is a brighter side to the story. Over the past 20 years, the exodus from conventional agriculture has been matched by the entry of a new kind of farmer—tens of thousands of Americans with a more personal and ecological approach to growing and raising food, who, often against considerable odds, put everything they've got into building a more healthy and sustainable food system, one small farm at a time. At the same time, a growing segment of the public is increasingly disenchanted with a food system based on large-scale, corporate monoculture and toxic chemicals and they are eager to support a more earth-friendly and local agriculture.
These new farmers are seldom born into the farming life, and they often start out with more passion than practical knowledge. They are motivated by the conviction that settling down in a community, growing decent food, and looking after a piece of land are worthwhile pursuits in a hyped-up and often scary world. Usually they believe that humanity's heavy-handed exploitation of the planet is heading us in the wrong direction. These are the folks you see selling at farmers' markets or offering CSA shares to their neighbors. They are the ones delivering to food co-ops and local restaurants. The farms they operate tend to be relatively small and highly diversified. Most of these new farmers shun genetically modified seeds and avoid synthetic pesticides and herbicides or use them on a very limited basis. Some opt for organic certification; others follow their own paths to sustainability.
There's just one catch: Starting a new farm these days is a tall order for almost anyone who lacks significant financial resources. The main hurdle is the exorbitantly high cost of land, especially land within a couple of hours of a major population center. In the Hudson Valley, much of our best farmland already has been gobbled up by developers who can pay high prices and still make a profit building houses, often using a few acres of land for each lot. Since 1982, New York State has lost 4,500 farms (close to a half-million acres), and it's unlikely that any of this land will ever graze cows or grow vegetables again. When the current slump in the economy improves, what open land we have remaining will be back in the developers' sights, if it isn't already, and prices undoubtedly will go up.
Another problem today's aspiring farmers face (if and when they have acquired land) is the high cost of equipment, supplies, insurance and taxes. To start a backyard garden, all you need is a compost pile, a hose and an assortment of shovels, rakes, forks and the like; to operate a commercially viable farm, you need tractors and the various implements that go with them, and because sustainable, diversified farming is more labor intensive than conventional chemical agriculture, a farmer also needs a few sets of human hands besides his own. Bottom line: Labor, equipment and infrastructure can use up a lot of money, probably more than a new farmer is going to make in the early years before he or she has developed a strong market.
There are no quick or easy answers to the questions and challenges confronting nearly all small farmers, young or old. Clearly there is a powerful desire to maintain and strengthen agriculture in our region, and there are many reasons to do so. Even in this challenging environment, however, there are small success stories, especially within 100 miles of New York City, where there's no shortage of mouths to feed.
It is also clear, however, that a lot of resolve, action, and perhaps investment are needed if we are to hold on to the local farms we still have and help new farmers get a foot in the door. The American Farmland Trust's motto, "No Farms, No Food" succinctly sums up the alternative.