“American farmers are a dying breed,” a Newsweek cover story tolled last spring. The splashy headline was eye-grabbing, but the narrative of aging farmers and agricultural decline is closer to myth than fact. More and more young people are joining the time-tested profession, bringing new technology, ideas and environmental consciousness to farming.
Just who are these millennials heading into the fields, and why are they doing it? It’s a question Young Invincibles, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on youth engagement, along with Global Prairie, a digital media and marketing firm in Kansas City, will be asking on a nationwide listening tour, FarmNext: Giving Voice to the Next Generation of Food Producers. The group will host its first meeting at University of California, Davis today, followed by stops at Kansas State University, Virginia Tech and Iowa State University. It all culminates in a summit at the nation’s capital this fall.
NationSwell will be following the conference as it hops around the country, bringing you stories about young farmers’ perseverance and innovation in the face of challenges. We’ll focus on how we can incentivize young people to do the crucial work that stocks our markets with food; how drones, mapping and the latest inventions are changing the business of agriculture; and how America as a whole can bridge the divide between rural and urban communities.
“I think we’ve seen the millennial generation as a generation that has been let down by traditional institutions, whether that’s the real estate market, Wall Street, government,” Tom Allison, Young Invincible’s policy and research manager, tells NationSwell. For young people, “there’s a cultural search for something authentic, and you can’t get more authentic than reconnecting with the land, growing your own food and becoming part of the ecological system in a way that maybe has been lost in previous generations.”
These 80 million teens and twentysomethings — idealistic, socially, tech-savvy and penniless, if you believe what the media says — compose a growing share of the country’s workforce. Agriculture’s no different. While some indicators, like the average age of the “principal operator,” may appear to show farmers are getting older, those aren’t exactly accurate. “A lot of times a family might designate the oldest person in the family, out of respect and tradition, even if Grandpa isn’t necessarily doing as much work or making the business and ecological decisions of the farm,” notes Allison, whose family operates a small vineyard in Virginia.
Most other numbers reveal a millennial-driven business. The median age for non-management farmhands is 37.4 and for miscellaneous agricultural workers it’s 34.1 — both far younger than the median age for all occupations: 42.3. Another way of measuring the age of the workforce, the share of jobs held by millennials (16 to 34 years old), reveals that in fields like agriculture and food science, 41 percent of jobs are held by young adults.
Those figures are expected to grow. While the number of students majoring in agricultural studies remains low overall — 1.8 percent — its growth is skyrocketing, with a 39 percent increase over the past five years.
“There’s attributes that make us uniquely adapted to the agricultural industry,” Allison says. “We have collaborative approaches to work. Even though it is one person toiling in the soil, it really takes a whole network across the industry: the folks selling the equipment through the food chain pipeline to the buyer. Young people are also so adapted to technology. Agriculture relies more and more on predictive analytics to inform decisions on what to grow and when, GPS or drones to identify problems in the field that are too big or too small for one person or a crew to identify and big applications for food chemistry.”
Farming is not as easy or romantic as it sounds, as Allison can attest. It’s “not exactly Norman Rockwell,” he says. There’s days in late spring when you light a fire at the end of your row of vines to ward away a frost, tend it all night, then have one flock of birds eat your entire crop the next afternoon. There’s days in late summer when the salty sweat burns your eyes under 100-degree heat. But even for all the hardship, the rewards of harvesting something from the soil are attracting a new group.
“The numbers are there,” Allison adds. “Young people are getting into farming, both because they care about it and because there’s a lot of opportunities there.” Which is good news for the rest of us, since our dinner depends on it.