Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 26, 2013

Future Farmers of America

America’s farmers are aging. As a profession, even one with a longer arc of employment than most, farmers are come to the age of retirement. American farmers now average 62 years of age. Who will farm the land in the decades to come? Who will be farming the land one decade from now?

Agriculture departments at the university level have a two track approach to farming. At one end, they train technicians how to operate machinery and apply clean ratios of seed, fertilizer and pesticide to a given tract of land over time. They train these same technicians to CAFO principles and operations if the students choose to specialize in livestock processing.

At the other end, the ag departments of America are training research scientists to find an area of specialization useful to the military-agricultural complex in order to make a living by means of tame research and development for multinationals. As when the medical establishment requires of medical doctors only one semester of nutrition in order to become a healer of persons, so the emphasis in formal agricultural education is anywhere but on soil and stewardship.

Funnily enough, most folks don’t picture a guy in a tractor the size of Rhode Island when someone says the word, ‘farmer’. Most people visualize a person who works with the land and the soil and limitations of the weather, or its excesses, to grow and raise food and textiles when they hear the word, ‘farmer’. And this disconnect is telling.

No one really wants to grow up to operate the big tractors with their own heating and cooling systems for the cab. Well, OK. A few people really, really want to operate and maintain the big machines. For them it’s a calling. For everyone else, farming speaks to a connection with the weather, with the cycles of the seasons, with the cycles of the plants, with the cycles of the livestock.

Our future farmers are taking lots of environmental classes as a minor to law prep or sociology or geology or food studies. Our future farmers are diligently learning the skills they know will come in most handy when they go through the Peace Corps induction process. Our future farmers are taking some time off before starting their M.A. in comparative 17th c. Caribbean lit and stretching their dollars by WWOOFing. Our future farmers are volunteering at a vertical, urban, elementary school garden in a transitioning neighborhood on weekends and after work. Our future farmers have started a food justice farmers market in church basements to equalize the food desert problem for urban residents without cars.

The USDA needs to find a way to reach out to these people and tell them about the Beginning Farmers programs, and assign new farmers bureaucratic mentors to walk them through the best of all possible grant and loan application cycles to start their farming experience on the right foot. New farmers need to know what steps they can make to prepare themselves for the kind of farming they might like to do. New farmers need to have the range of possible niches explained to them. New farmers need to understand how to budget and bridge production gaps while they get their operations up to size. If the USDA can reach out in this fashion, the department will secure to itself a segment of the American populace which it may continue to serve.

Otherwise, the USDA may be Balkanized as a branch of the Department of Commerce. About 45% of America’s agricultural output comes from just 200,000 farms. The number of farms continues to shrink as the agricultural multinationals consume individual operations.

Can we teach ourselves to see agriculture as something  beyond commerce? Can we bring stewardship back to land management and livestock development? Can we do so in time?


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