Many of us, I'm sure, harbor romantic fantasies of taking the land, donning a pair of old jeans and becoming a farmer -- an actual productive link in the local, sustainable, community-rooted, equitable food future that glimmers like a mirage off in the distance, one nation under Michael Pollan.
The reality, though, is that the life of a modern American farmer is a tough slog. Agriculture in the U.S. isn't at all friendly to the go-it-alone farmer: land is prohibitively expensive and the initial capital investment required can be prohibitive. If software startups in the United States faced the same obstacles as startup farmers do today, there's little chance we'd have seen the rise of Microsoft or Amazon or Google.
Even so, there is today a burgeoning Young Farmers Movement in America. A new project, titled Serve Your Country Food, aims to map that growing trend. Started by young agricultural activist Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the effort wants to make visible where young farmers are tilling soil and raising animals from coast to coast across the United States.
USDA census figures show that American farmers are, on average, getting older. Farmers between the ages of 25 and 34 make up just 2.8% of American farmers, and farmers under 25 account for just half a percent.
As the farming population ages without an influx of new blood, we lose the opportunity to pass down the hard-won knowledge of experienced growers to ones just starting out. Communities have a tough time making plans for a sustainable agricultural future if they don't know they'll have young bodies to meet the considerable physical demands of farming.
And fewer young farmers means the hardy souls who do attempt to stick it out face a lonely future. They don't have the support network that can help forge through the difficult times they'll likely face. "Serve Your Country Food" asks young farmers -- from those who have managed to purchase their own land to "journeymen" who travel from plot to plot -- to stand up and be seen and counted.
The goal is to help reorient modern agriculture back to the small, ecologically-minded farmer, and to do so by collecting enough data on the young farmers movement to produce useful research. If all goes well, this same system will be used to augment the softer side of farming: "dances, parties, and festivals for young farmers in the countryside." And while that might not be foosball in the break room at the Googleplex, it still sounds like a mighty good time.
Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.
It's great to see online support networks forming for novice farmers. We bought our farm last year with the goal of first sustaining ourselves, then providing products to the community. It was a fairly good startup year and next year we expect to have 25 laying hens, seven honey-producing beehives, and two acres of produce.
You're right, the investment can be huge. We borrow a tractor from a generous neighbor in exchange for canned goods. And there are plenty of neighbors who will mow our hay in exchange for a six-pack. You just have to walk the field later and pick up the empty cans.
I like the idea of farming as a way of earning a living and it is possible,it has got to be manageable somehow.Being a farmer is worth a try and thanks should be given to those mentioned in the article I comment on.
collecting data and producing useful research sounds like a good modern method to aid those who farm.Farmers will certainly need to be as tech and communication as any other businessperson.Borrowing that tractor must really help,good luck... of course I hope it doesn't break down... ever...
Check out www.spinfarming.com for ideas on lowering the entry costs to farming. The originators of Small Plot INtensive Farming claim to make "agriculture accessible to anyone anywhere" & that it's possible to make a middle class income on an acre or less.
We completed our first year of growing & marketing & are attempting to create a job-skill training program teaching everything from site selection to marketing & entrepreneurship. The SPIN guides are expensive, but useful, and the the support from fellow SPIN farmers via the SPIN listserv has been tremendously helpful.