When it comes to business, the chicken-and-egg dilemma has a clear answer: Create the demand and supply will follow. Using this logic, you’d think we could safely assume that the food we eat, being somewhat in demand you could say, would always have people willing and able to supply it.
But according to a recent article by Food Nutrition and Science, with half the farmland in America owned and run by people over the age of 55, a food shortage is exactly what we may be facing. The problem being, of course, what will happen when these farmers retire?
Traditionally, farmers have kept farms in their families by passing on know-how to their children. It’s what’s happened for centuries, so why’s there a problem now?
“It all changed with the ‘get big or get out’ thinking that came with the industrial and agricultural revolution,” says Johnny Wilson of Fogline Farm in Santa Cruz, California. “Small farms couldn’t compete in the new market and many family farms were either forced out of business or decided that the new industrial way of farming wasn’t for them.”
For the first time in thousands of years small farmers with crucial know-how and centuries worth of knowledge were silenced. Some continued to work their farms, but with an uncertain future, many encouraged their children to find other careers. A whole generation moved away from the land.
“We’ve not only lost touch with farming practices and traditions,” says farmer Heidi McGowan of the Chapman farm in North Stonington, Connecticut. “We’ve lost touch with where our food comes from.”
Convincing the new generation that shovelling muck from dawn to dusk for little cash is a good career path is not an easy job.
“Farming is a labor of love,” says Heidi, “a way of life, not a job.”
“We didn’t have TV as kids,” adds her husband Dennis. “We were thrown outside to find our own entertainment. Farming became what we knew. Why would kids today want to work seven days a week, 365 days a year and make little money?”
So what does the disappearance of many family farms and a generation of young farmers mean in the big scheme of things? Perhaps not much, if it wasn’t for the unpalatable truth that industrial farming methods are unsustainable. With limited resources, climate change and the rising cost of fuel threatening to cripple industrial farming profits, a return to smaller, more sustainable farming looks like the only way forward. But not, of course if there aren’t enough farmers to do the job.
As a young farmer with no farming family to speak of, Johnny Wilson thinks that hope lies in a completely new breed of farmer.
“I trained in environmental studies and the more I learned about agriculture’s impact on the world — deforestation, water pollution, the excess use of pesticides — the more I wanted to change things. When I left college I worked for a non-profit organization advocating organic principles, but I became frustrated behind a desk so took a crash course in organic farming and sustainable agriculture at the University of Santa Cruz.”
With the help of California FarmLink, an organisation that helps new farmers find land and mentors, Wilson met farmer Bruce Manildi and secured the lease of two acres on his 40-acre farm.
“Growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t have an inherent knowledge of what it takes to work on a farm. What I’ve learned from Bruce since has made me realize how close we are to losing the knowledge small farmers have been passing on for years.
“People don’t realise how broad based farming is. You’re a mechanic, a vet, a biologist, botanist, ecologist and meteorologist, and that’s before you’ve even started farming.”
And getting know-how isn’t the only problem fledgling farmers face. Most young farmers don’t inherit land, and that means crippling start-up costs.
“Buying a second-hand tractor will set you back around $75,000,” says Dennis McGowan of the Chapman Farm. “And that’s before you’ve even thought about buying some land to go with it.”
In his third year producing veggies, chicken, pork and eggs and selling them locally, Fogline’s Wilson is finally beginning to turn a profit.
“I couldn’t have done it without partners or linking up with an established farmer,” he says. “Or California FarmLink of course. If you look hard, there are actually a lot of great organizations out there.
“Stone Barns offer training and support for young farmers in the Northeast. And companies like Wwoof, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, help young farmers find internships all over the world.”
In its report “Growing a better future,” the charity Oxfam predicts food costs will have more than doubled by 2030. “We are sleepwalking into an avoidable age of crisis,” says Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive.
Wilson isn’t so sure it’s avoidable. “If trends continue, we’re going to rely on a patchwork of small farms supplying food locally. Environmental and sustainability issues are at least making it more fashionable to become a farmer.”
The number of trainee farmers is on the rise, as are programs to help them. In 2002, there were 106,097 farmers between the ages of 25 to 34 looking to train in the US. By 2007, there were only 700 or so more. People are joining the cause, but not in numbers that’ll make much difference.
So should we panic, buy an allotment and don a pair of rubber boots? Perhaps, but in the meantime there is something we can all do to help turn the tide. Throughout the country, farmers have one resounding message — BUY LOCALLY. Encouraging smaller sustainable farms by buying their produce is the best way to encourage farmers back to the fields. With a more profitable platform for them, the jobs are a whole lot more attractive.
“Owning a small farm may mean long hours but it’s also a wonderful lifestyle,” says Wilson. “You’re your own boss, you choose the hours you want to work.” And just as long as enough people support them, there’s a chance they could be saving your food supply.
So next time you pick up those snow peas from Kenya or a steak from Argentina, spare a thought for the wider issue — the future of our children’s food — and think local instead.
Do you buy locally? Shout out your favorite farmers market or farm stand below in the comments.