Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

locally grown

Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

Old farmers never die. They just hoe away.” So said the message in a birthday card sent me by a former employee. On the front was a cartoon-like rendition of a stooped old man with a hoe, working his way down an endlessly long row. It was a bit absurd but it made me laugh, especially since it did contain a grain of truth.

I’m an old farmer and I still do a little hoeing now and then. I’ve been talking about retirement for a decade but haven’t quite gotten around to it yet. Perhaps it’s because working the land is more like a vocation than a job and it connects me to something bigger and more enduring than myself.

I’m not alone. The average age of farmers and ranchers in the U.S. is 58, making us among the country’s oldest workers; a third of those farming today are 65 or older (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2012). I’ll be 75 in March. You don’t have to be an agricultural policy wonk to wonder who will be around to operate the nation’s farms a decade or so from now.

But there’s more going on here than just a bunch of oldies clinging to the land and their way of life. Conventional agriculture (large-scale monoculture and factory farming) produces much of the food we consume. This kind of farming, though, holds little allure for young people these days. It’s just another business—and a dicey, unglamorous and sometimes dangerous one at that (farmers are nearly twice as likely to die on the job as police officers).

More troubling than the risk to life and limb are erratic and extreme weather, shifting trade policies, unstable markets, ever-higher costs of feed, fertilizer, pesticides and equipment (these days, a John Deere combine can set you back $500,000). Any one of these items (or a combination of them) can turn a farm’s bottom line from black to red in a hurry, which is a major reason why conventional farming is becoming a tough sell.

The other side of the story, however, might be characterized as the modern equivalent of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. This time, though, it’s not rebellious hippies and counter-culture dropouts looking to escape the middle-class rat race in search of utopia (with the added enticements of free love and drugs): Today’s crop of aspiring, non-conventional farmers are thoughtful, focused and informed. Many are driven by a sincere wish to build a better food system, lead meaningful lives and help heal an ailing planet, one small farm at a time. Most enjoy the sun’s warmth on their shoulders and the visceral pleasure of fertile soil crumbling through their fingers.

These new (though not necessarily young) farmers tend to be content with small to mid-size operations. They favor diversification over monoculture and often incorporate multiple crops and livestock into their farm plans. Many eschew chemical pesticides and fertilizer, preferring to use organic and/or sustainable practices. Instead of selling wholesale and exporting across the country or the globe, they target local economies through retail outlets, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, CSAs and restaurants. An increasing number of people want what they have to offer.

Here in the Hudson Valley there’s no shortage of farmers of this sort. Over the past 30 years they have fueled a remarkable agricultural renaissance, driven partly by the valley’s proximity to New York City and the city’s growing appetite for high-quality, local food. The valley has become the source of choice for fresh produce, meats, cheeses and, recently, an impressive menu of brewed, fermented and distilled beverages. World-class restaurants throughout the valley draw visitors from far and wide; tourism and agritourism are on the rise, giving a boost to local economies and making many Hudson Valley towns and rural communities increasingly attractive places to visit and live.

But there’s a dark cloud on the horizon. Notwithstanding this burst of agricultural energy, most Hudson Valley farm owners and operators are not young—like farmers and ranchers elsewhere, many are entering their golden years, if they are not already in them. The looming uncertainty is what will become of their farms when they’re gone.

Certainly, a growing number of people in their twenties, thirties and forties are eager to learn what it takes to become farmers, and some gain experience and knowledge by working on established farms.

However, experienced or not, most would-be farmers face one major obstacle: the cost of land in today’s market. Because of its proximity to New York City, residential and commercial development pressure in the Hudson Valley has made buying a farm here—or even finding suitable land—more difficult than it was even ten years ago.

To prosper, farmers need deep, well-drained soil on moderately level ground—exactly the kind of land developers want, too. Steep slopes and rocky or wooded terrain with shallow or poorly drained soil are fine for wildlife and recreation but costly to build on and ill-suited to most types of agriculture.

It’s a rare individual who goes into farming expecting to get rich (and few do). For most, today’s high land prices (not to mention start-up costs) present an almost insurmountable hurdle. In the competition between farmers and developers, the developers usually win. The Hudson Valley already has lost more than half its good farmland to development; most of what’s left and available is priced for residential subdivisions or commercial use.

Few retiring farmers want to see McMansions or strip malls sprout up on the land they’ve poured their lives into. The majority would prefer that their farms remain productive open fields and pasture. However, when they or their heirs put the farm up for sale, they expect (and deserve) to receive full market value. For farm families, land often is their main (sometimes their only) asset.

Nowhere is this more true than in the dairy business. Over the last few decades, the winds of fortune and the economics of industrial dairy farming have ruthlessly battered small and medium-size dairy farmers in the Hudson Valley (and the entire Northeast, for that matter). Perennially low milk prices in other parts of the country, as well as foreign competition, have made it hard for most dairy farmers in this region to stay afloat—the price they receive for their milk is often below their production costs. “The more milk I produce,” one dairy farmer recently declared, “the more money I lose.”

In the current environment, many dairy farmers have no choice but to give up their life’s work and sell their cows (most go to slaughter) and their land. This past December, in fact, six of the remaining 40 dairy farms in Orange County announced they were closing operations.

If the Hudson Valley is to keep its remaining farms and enjoy the bounty they offer, safeguarding productive land and keeping it available and affordable for the next generation of farmers will be key. One way this can be achieved is through conservation easements, also known as sale of development rights. This is a voluntary, binding legal agreement between a landowner and an outside party (usually a land trust, non-profit or government entity) that places restrictions on future use of a specific property. In most cases, conservation easements disallow or severely restrict additional development or subdivision, and they apply not only to the current owners of a property but to all future owners, as well. Because land protected by a conservation easement can no longer be developed, its value usually drops significantly, making it more affordable for start-up farmers or those looking to expand operations.

Landowners who place a conservation easement on their property receive monetary compensation to make up for its diminished market value. In other words, most conservation easements cost money, which may come from federal, state or local farmland preservation funds, from taxes on real estate transactions or from land trusts or groups like Scenic Hudson and The Open Space Institute, whose mission is to preserve farmland and open space. (Full disclosure: We have a conservation easement on our farm through the Orange County Land Trust. In its 25-year history, OCLT has protected more than 6,000 acres. See “Going, going, saved,” by Jeff Storey, Valley Table 80, Sept-Nov 2017.)

In some instances, wealthy, conservation-oriented landowners may place restrictive easements on their farmland without receiving monetary compensation, though federal and state tax laws usually allow for deductions against income in these cases.

To benefit a working farm, it is essential that a conservation easement stipulate that the property in question remain in “productive agriculture.” An easement that simply allows an individual to get a bargain price on land that he or she intends to turn into a private estate or weekend hobby farm does not achieve this goal.

New York City has expended much energy and capital to protect its watershed, with good reason: Its population of about nine million people depends on a reliable supply of potable water. But New Yorkers also need and want access to high quality, fresh food, particularly as climate change and extreme weather events impact many of the nation’s traditional food-producing areas. The Hudson Valley (as well as parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other nearby states) has long supplied the city with a significant portion of its local food diet; the loss of what productive land remains within 100 miles of the city would have devastating consequences on that supply chain.

All of which reinforces the fact that our reinvigorated Hudson Valley is under threat. If the progressive loss of the valley’s working rural landscape continues unabated, it will impoverish the area both aesthetically and economically. Quality of life will likely deteriorate, while property taxes will rise. (Farms place far fewer demands on municipal budgets than land converted to residential use—they require just 37 cents in services for every tax dollar they pay.)

Those who live in the valley will have decreasing access to the cornucopia of local food we have become accustomed to. New York City’s extensive network of farmers’ markets (operated by GrowNYC’s hugely successful Greenmarket program) that has flourished over the past four decades and enriched the city tremendously, will inevitably wither as farmer attrition takes its toll. All New Yorkers will notice the loss.

The next generation of farmers, priced out of the market, will look elsewhere to fulfill the dream of a life on the land and their desire to be part of a vibrant, local economy and food system.

Thankfully, there is no law of man or nature that dictates such a future. So long as we have the knowledge and the resolve, it is possible to stem exurban sprawl and preserve our diverse rural base. For its future prosperity, the Hudson Valley must make farmland protection a high priority. Well-drafted conservation easements are one means to this end. It is also incumbent on New York City’s government, endowed foundations and charitable institutions to recognize the threat of development and allocate resources to help protect the city’s precious but shrinking foodshed.

There are no needs more essential to human welfare than good, fresh, clean food and water. Let’s hope the day never comes when we must ask ourselves, Where have all the farmers gone?        

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