"Our Food is Being Produced by a Shrinking Handful of Aging Farmers. What Should We Do?"
by Cole Mellino
According to the 2007 USDA Agricultural Census, the median age of farmers in the U.S. is 57. As of 2008, approximately 2-3% of the U.S. population is directly employed in agriculture. Only a century ago, half the U.S. population was employed in agriculture. The number of farms in the U.S. dropped from 7 million in 1930 to 2 million in 2000 — and of those 2 million farms, just 3%, produced 75% of the nation’s farm output.
All this means that food is being produced by a very small handful of older farmers — many of whom are not really farmers, but businessmen who hire low-paid farmworkers to do the work in massive, industrialized operations. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of innovative and sustainable farmers of an older generation. But it’s time for a new younger generation to become interested in farming and change the way that we farm altogether in this country.
That’s especially true since feeding 7 billion people, then 8 billion, and then 9 billion in a world of ever-worsening climate change will be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced (see “Global Food Prices Stuck Near Record High Levels” and links below).
What to do?
As it turns out, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created two programs specifically because of a desperate need for youth engagement in food and agriculture.
Since 2009, the USDA has allocated about $18 million in grant money every year as part of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to help beginning farmers and ranchers run successful and sustainable farms.
The BFRDP, established by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill, is an “education, training, technical assistance and outreach program designed to help U.S. farmers and ranchers — specifically those who have been farming or ranching for 10 years or less,” according to the USDA.
Another new program, FoodCorps, part of AmeriCorps, places young adults in limited-resource communities for a year of public service to teach children about nutrition, to grow school gardens, and to facilitate farm-to-school programs that put local food in school lunches.
The grants provided through these programs have allowed UC Berkeley to train minority, immigrant and limited-resource farmers and ranchers on sustainable production. They’ve allowed the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment to create a training program for hundreds of beginning farmers in the South San Joaquin Valley on successful and sustainable farming practices while also creating community gardens, co-operatives and small-scale farms. Mississippi State University is distributing training material to high school and college students who plan to enter farming and ranching. And the University of Nevada is teaching Native American, Hispanic, women and low-income farmers and ranchers about sustainability and good farming practices.
All of these universities and non-profit organizations across the country are educating and training the next generation to be stewards of the land.
It’s time for a paradigm shift in farming. These two programs, if properly designed and funded, could help provide the catalyst for change.
Of course we’ll need to do a lot more. What do you think we should be doing?
Cole Mellino is an intern on the energy team at the Center for American Progress. Joe Romm helped with this post.
- Washington Post, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices.
- With No End in Sight for Texas Drought, ABC News Explains: “Every Farmer in the World Will Be Affected by Climate Change”
- The Coming Food Crisis: Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia’s fires and Pakistan’s floods are making a bad situation worse; Podesta, Caldwell: “Lasting gains in agricultural productivity will require … action to confront climate change.”
- How extreme weather could create a global food crisis: 2010 was among the hottest and wettest years on record – we are entering a period of climate and food insecurity
- Jeremy Grantham must-read, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”
- Biofuels May Push 120 Million Into Hunger, Qatar’s Shah Says: “The era of low food prices … is over.”
- The Corn Ultimatum: How Long Can Americans Keep Burning One Sixth of the World’s Corn Supply in Our Cars?)