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.

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28 Responses to Our Food is Being Produced by a Shrinking Handful of Aging Farmers. What Should We Do?

  1. dan allen says:

    What to do? In your town, practice & promote permaculture & perennial polyculture. …And try to get gov’ts to get off the sucidal agriculture bandwagon(ha!)


  2. Raul M. says:

    Started a hydroponic vegetable garden on the 30th of Sept. and the vegetable plants are still living and I’m learning
    Hopefully, if it turns out to be a good crop from such I’ll get to start a second unit of hydroponic vegetables.
    It’s fun and when it works out I’ll add a fish tank or small pond to have aquaponics, then it will be fin and fun.

  3. Insane says:

    Get a ‘matter generator’….

  4. Martin Palmer says:

    Global warming associated weather variability and commodity futures speculation will increase food prices. Normally, this would increase investment in agriculture, and large profits would normally attract young people into farming.

    Unfortunately, because of climate chaos, investing in agriculture will be risky. Likely investors will look for agricultural areas with abundant water from pumped aquifers, and crops that are resistant to weather damage. Also, more greenhouses and hydroponics may be in our future.

    What we should do is have lots of small farms, with food grown locally. Our fossil fuel powered food supply system has turned breathing from a carbon neutral activity, into an activity which is in effect carbon positive. But, like in all other areas, we are unlikely to make progress in this so long as we remain in climate change denial.

    More and more, it’s looking like a more socialist system with more monitoring and planning will be necessary in the future. But, in the U.S., that is unlikely to happen, due to elite resistance and astroturf propaganda. Also, our capitalist financial system will enjoy the chaos, and look to profit from speculation on commodity futures.

    Forecast: continuing paralysis with a high risk of meltdown.

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    We should be growing as much of our own food as possible, and supporting local producers by buying as much of the rest of our food as possible from local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms.

    The surburbs of America once were, and can again become, highly productive agricultural areas — producing large amounts of high quality healthy food close to population centers where it is consumed. During World War II the “Victory Gardens” produced something like two-thirds of the produce consumed in America. With modern organic agriculture techniques and knowledge, we can do even better than that today.

    America’s suburbanites already invest huge amounts of money, time and work into maintaining purely decorative lawns, shrubbery, etc. It really doesn’t take much to redirect that same effort into food gardens and micro-farms instead.

    And of course, we can switch to vegan diets. It is ironic to read the (entirely proper) concerns expressed about the impact on the food supply from diversion of corn to ethanol production, given that 80 percent or more of the corn and soybeans grown in the USA goes to feed factory-farmed animals, with a resulting loss of up to 90 percent of the original protein content of the crops, not to mention the massive environmental damage, massive GHG emissions, and costly epidemics of entirely preventable disease that result from animal agriculture.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    We need a program to retain or bring back young generations who grew up on family farms. They already have the skills, yet those farms and farmers wouldn’t qualify for the BFRDP.

    I also come across urban young people who would like to start up farming, but need to attend an agricultural school or serve an apprenticeship.

    Urban farming (greenhouses, window sill, living wall, caged chickens) deserves a fresh look. What volume can it produce?

    A hundred years ago it was normal for at least one of the neighbors to have a cow in a backyard, and other neighbors would stop by with a pail for some milk. We won’t go back to that, at least not right away, but it helps to think out of the box for where “farming” can occur.

  7. dko says:

    As a 50-year-old farmer, I can offer some perspective.

    First and foremost, I do not favor a government program to tip the scales. There are already programs in place to favor women and minorities and they have been miserable failures, prone to scamming. Agriculture is a business and it doesn’t care whether you are black or white, young or old. But you do need a plan and the willingness to work hard and gamble it all on things beyond your control. Those who have that fire in their belly don’t need a program to succeed; those without it have no chance either way.

    Second, there is no evidence that younger or minority/immigrant farmers would produce food at lower cost. Farming is risky business and small operators usually have to supplement their income with off-farm jobs. To compete on a profitable scale requires at least a million dollars in machinery, that much more in direct input expenses, and several million dollars in land, though you might be able to lease that. A program that essentially enables marginal producers to persist at subsistence levels is hard to support. As much as people lament the passing of Mom-and-Pop grocery stores, we all like the lower prices of Wal-Mart and Costco. Agriculture is going the same way and for the same reasons.

    Finally, I think we should be careful in how we define a farmer. A farmer *is* a businessman and part of our job is managing a workforce. Sitting in a tractor seat doesn’t make one a farmer; you need to have some skin in the game. To get good workers, we pay twice-minimum-wage for seasonal help. I don’t think that is being exploitative. This crew includes my sons, who are working hard to earn their way into the operation. Their success will depend on a lot of hard work and some luck. Programs designed to promote one race or sex over another will work against them, as they had the misfortune of being born white males.

  8. Tony says:

    Agriculture has indeed become an economy of scale, as you point out.

    Something else that I wish you would have stressed is that farming involves back-breaking labor, something that very few people are prepared to do even though they say they want to be “producers.”

  9. dko says:

    I won’t minimize the desire of people to “eat locally” when practical. But producing food can be a bit of a chore. How many even grow their own herbs these days? All you need is a window sill. And while some consumers mourn the loss of connection to the soil, most would rather buy grapes from Chile than pay ten cents extra for local production.

  10. Martin Palmer says:

    Maybe what we need to do is come up with a way to make corporate farming more carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

    Combining biochar with commercial fertilizers could end up being more effective than either strategy alone, would tend to reduce fertilizer runoff and could be carbon negative.

    If small scale cellulosic ethanol production or hydrogen production from pyrolysis of biomass ever becomes economical, it might be possible for farmers to produce their own fuel. Charcoal or wood pellets, burned in an external combustion engine, could also power farm machinery. Hybrid vehicle technology could be applied to farm machinery as easily as to any other vehicle, and could cut fossil fuel use. Electrically powered farm machinery seems possible, perhaps from modular battery packs.

    From a physics and chemistry point of view, there is no reason that farms could not supply themselves with carbon neutral energy from crop residues to power their operations, either on a small scale or as part of a large scale system.

    As in all other areas of our technology, the changes necessary to become carbon neutral are huge, and we are making essentially no progress.

  11. Zoe Lee says:

    Same old story. We won’t do what we should, we will keep on with the unsustainable system until it hits the wall. Oil and immigrants are currently propping up the agricultural system – there’s currently a crisis in immigrant supply but it’s obvious that it’s the imminent oil shortages that will force change. We will have to go local for most of our needs as oil becomes more expensive. If we’re smart we will incorporate Permaculture, earth building and other efficient ways to provide our needs from the local environment (including education and health care), and provide a safe environment for our children to grow up in and for the oldies to live out their lives in comfort. Or not… Mass famines occurred last century in India and China, mostly due to Government incompetence or disinterest. I wouldn’t like to see government take a lead role in this except to provide for the establishment of self-reliant, independent villages through tax-breaks – say $10,000 tax refund per person per year in the village if the village meets a “sustainable” definition. My definition of sustainable would be that the village is built carbon-neutral and provides minimum 80% of the food, energy, education, care and health needs of its inhabitants.

  12. BA says:

    All very good points. I agree, I have been micro farming the back yard for a few years now and more and more tending toward perennials and a permaculture type of approach. There has been a big push in my city to allow small scale poultry raising and after some struggle they approved three chickens per yard.

    Something I enjoy about as much as growing food is growing for pollinating insects. I am slowly turning the “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the road in front of my house into a flower garden for pollinators whereas most of my neighbors have graveled this area over for extra parking and many of them hose it down regularly with herbicides. I am hoping to start a trend in a different direction.

  13. Pangolin` says:

    I know people in their 20’s who want to farm and either can’t access farmland or are trying to work land on short term leases. Some work “internships” at tiny organic farms where they get food, shelter and a few dollars spending money instead of wages.

    None of these people are likely to accept the indentured servitude offered by corporations such as Tyson for the “privilege” of farming. They need a program that helps them find a few years apprenticeship and that helps them buy farmland of their own.

    If it takes a million dollars in loans to start farming we’re all going to starve. The work is simply too hard and nobody trusts the banks anymore.

  14. BA says:

    History is rife with subsidized farm programs, the homestead act for one. It is about time we change direction away from the big corporate, centralized model. I think with global warming we need to spread our bets and have a lot of small diverse farms (and a lot of farmers) instead of a relatively few behemoth, mono-culture, factory farms.

  15. David B. Benson says:

    Turn your lawns into gardens.

    Eat (almost) no red meat and little chicken or turkey either.

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Masters has posted maps that say over 8″s are about to fall over a Texas town that recorded 102F on April 2nd.

    Trust me, this is the flaming heart of the “Great Texas Drought”.

  17. Colorado Bob says:

    Jesus is coming to Oklahoma this weekend.

  18. Colorado Bob says:

    Thailand –
    Free trade doesn’t work if, ….. Hay is $200.00 dollars a ton in Wyoming.

    There are a Honda’s coming from Thailand tonight. But the Honda pipe just closed from Thailand.

    Free trade doesn’t work if the Honda Plants in Thailand have 3 feet of water in them.
    Jesus is coming to Oklahoma this weekend.

    He’s been workin’ Thailand for months –

    (Reuters) – Flooding forced the evacuation of hundreds of inmates from a prison in central Thailand on Thursday and a prominent think tank slashed its forecast for economic growth this year as farmland was inundated and a big industrial estate had to close.

    At least 244 people have been killed in floods in Thailand since mid-July, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said. Another 167 have died in neighboring Cambodia and 15 in Vietnam in what a United Nations agency said was the worst flooding to hit parts of Southeast Asia in 50 years.

  19. David B. Benson says:

    I expect lotsa flash flooding, I fear.

  20. Colorado Bob says:

    Let’s review shall wee ?
    8 times the average rain fall in southern Pakistan.
    78 inches from Typhoon #12 in Japan …… flooded Honda Plants in Thailand .

    Nobody is making a buck here. Nobody.

  21. Colorado Bob says:

    I forgot Korea, for the second year running. Seoul broke it’s “All Time 24 hour Rainfall Record “.
    This happened without a typhoon as the trigger. This storm brought 21 inches around all that wreckage in Japan. In Korea it was near 1 foot of rain in 24 hours.

  22. Colorado Bob says:

    If Asia fights giant rains every spring,summer, and fall.
    This “free trade deal” falls on it’s ass pretty fast.

  23. lemmonmc says:


    “There are already programs in place to favor women and minorities and they have been miserable failures, prone to scamming.”

    Link please. I don’t doubt what you just stated could be true, but without further information on it for review and reference, it sounds like it could also be a right wing libertarian rant.

  24. dko says:

    The USDA already has special programs, grants, and subsidized loans available for “disadvantaged groups,” as you can see on their Web site. But the only favored group that is gaining ground, in terms of market penetration, is women. Before we declare victory, however, it should be pointed out that essentially all of the growth there is from widows taking over from their deceased husbands. Perhaps you can show me where one of these programs IS making a difference.

  25. Paul Magnus says:

    If you thought living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches could get you through the recession, think again. The sandwich spread is seeing a major price hike.

  26. Chris Pawelski says:

    Hurricane Irene has destroyed our onion crop and wiped out our family farm. The federal crop insurance program is worthless and no disaster aid is getting passed by this Congress for farmers in the northeast.

    Know anyone that would like to buy a $150,000 bag of onions, save a farm and get a free 5 gallon bucket of dirt in the process?

    Click on the link to get to a link that will take you to my US Senate Ag Committee testimony last year regarding the federal crop insurance program, and how poor it is, as well as numerous links detailing the disaster we are going through this year.

    Please spread this story!

  27. Joe Romm says:

    You live near where I grew up in MIddletown.

  28. Chris Pawelski says:

    Yup, Middletown is only about 15 minutes away from where I live.