USDA announces new grants to reduce 'grain drain'

With the average age of farmers still rising, grants to help out newbies don't get to the root of the problem.


The American farming industry is old. No, I’m not referring to the fact that agrarians have been working the land for thousands of years. I mean old as in, 57 years. That’s the average age of American farmers, up from 55 in 2007, and a continuation of three decades of steady increase. A third of all principal farm operators are at least 65, in large part because an increasing number of young people are choosing not to eke out a living at the family farm and instead seek other opportunities in cities. And the young growers who decide to buck the trend and give it a try are less likely to own their land than established farmers; most of them hold other jobs to make ends meet, and many of them drop out of the industry after a few years.

The Department of Agriculture has been trying to revitalize a younger generation of farmers for many years, and earlier this month, Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced another $18.5 million that will go toward education and assistance under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The program was originally established in the 2008 Farm Bill, and was reauthorized under the massive 2014 Farm Bill. March 13 marks the deadline to apply for this year’s grants. (USDA defines “new” as having worked the land for no more than 10 years, which accounts for less than a quarter of all American farmers).

The new round of USDA grants is part of the agency’s attempt to help out new growers who don’t necessarily have the institutional knowledge, community resources or access to land that previous generations inherited from parents and grandparents. It’s a positive sign that the government is trying to address the problem, but bolstering educational opportunities may not be getting at the root. The main challenges for young farmers and ranchers are finding capital for startup costs and gaining access to land. (A 2011 survey found that 70 percent of farmers under 30 years old rented their land, as opposed to 37 percent of those over 30.) And part of the reason young farmers aren’t inheriting is because many aren’t kids of farmers—they’re part of the local food movement, 21st century back-to-the-landers, or passionate about sustainable agriculture. Or if their parents are farmers, that older generation is getting out of agriculture because it’s so difficult to make it as a small farm today.

And why is it so difficult? The same legislation that’s authorizing the millions of dollars in grants also gives billions of dollars in subsidies to large-scale farms that produce a handful of commodity crops like cotton, corn and wheat. Those subsidies help make mega-farms even bigger, perpetuate our nation’s reliance on large-scale food production, and push small farms out of the market.

Map of average age of farmers, by county, from the USDA's most recent census, 2012. Click for larger image.
Not to mention the fact that the current West-wide drought, which NASA scientists recently announced could develop into an event drier and longer in Southwestern states than any dry spell in the past 1,000 years, doesn’t exactly create an inviting environment for new farmers.

Some analysts have pointed out that the aging agriculture industry mirrors the overall general labor force, which also is getting slightly older (average age of 41). Farm policy  professor Carl Zulauf at Ohio State University wrote in 2013 that, “Putting the age of farmers in perspective suggests the U.S. will likely have little problem replacing its aging farmer population. It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete, either through inheritance or savings or both. The 1970 period of farm prosperity (when the average age of farmers dropped from 51 to 50) suggests the current period of prosperity will lead to an influx of young farmers.”

Sure, there’s no doubt that, in the past decade, there’s been a surge of interest in farming from organic-minded twenty-somethings. But apparently not quite enough to mitigate the trend of the aging industry. There’s still a long way to go before the young farmer movement transitions into a sustainable, long-term option for a critical mass of people. The USDA has cited predictions of an 8 percent drop in the country’s agricultural work force between 2008 and 2018—in part a result of fewer young farmers joining the force and older ones retiring. The $18.5 million in grants is a step toward mitigating what’s now being called a ‘grain drain,’ but it’s going to take a more comprehensive look at the Farm Bill (which is renegotiated every five years) to make real change.

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. Homepage image by the author, of Zephyros Farm in Paonia, Colorado. 

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