What will the next generation of farmers look like?
Where will your organic, micro, local, sustainable, raw, wild lettuce come from in 20 years? By definition of the small farm movement, we want farmers who cultivate small acreage, can talk engagingly about the food they produce and how to prepare it, and guarantee their economic success so they can afford to bring those vegetables to you throughout the years.
Let me brainstorm a few of the skills that it takes to bring the meat, vegetables, honey, etc to market:
(And what else? Leave more skills in comments.)
How many people or families have the ability to assimilate all these absolutely necessary skills and then bring a saleable product to market each year and then, the final key, make enough money to justify another year of farming. If you know Salatin's admirable sustainable grazing program, you know that it can take a lifetime to learn the system on top of all of the skills listed above.
Many smart, able people exist that can to perform the mental acrobatics and are committed to a lifetime of learning, but small are the number that are insane enough to start farming. Besides plentiful sunshine, exercise, and a feeling of accomplishment not matched in any other field, what does a farmer earn at the end of the year. $30,000? $50,000?
It takes a lot of care, knowledge, and passion to bring another apple into the world.
Balanced with quality of life issues, that level of compensation might be commensurate to the skills required if not for the extremely high entry costs and risks. Reasonably fertile land within a half-day drive of a metropolitan area (to sell the produce) in addition to equipment must cost at least $500,000 if not double or triple that figure in some areas. So to summarize the journey to starting a farm: spend around a million dollars up front; master 10-15 high level skills; work long, physical hours for the rest of your life; try to avoid a "natural" crop failure: freeze, flood, or drought; and hope that you have enough left at the end of the day to pay back the loan and muster a middle-class income. Or... take those skills and join the traditional workforce and earn six-figures without any upfront costs.
I hope I don't sound too pessimistic because I love agriculture: the growing, the marketing, and the work. It's just that this disconnect worries me as a younger person who has enough experience in growing to want to do it on my own. But as I think I have ably demonstrated above: it is an completely insane thing to do. Sure there are alternatives: innovative land access with trust, SPIN farming, or Farming the Concrete Jungle. Also, the market is growing for authentic food and small farms that can find a niche in the marketplace can be successful. I know it is possible, but how does a new farmer justify the risk?
Maybe there are simple brute economic forces acting on the market: people want adjective-laden food (micro, local, sustainable, et al) instead of chemical-laden food, but it takes extra care and smaller scale to bring these products to the marketplace. Small farms are well suited to the task of producing high-quality food, but the costs are higher. Will Americans pay the extra price that sustainable, small-scale production requires? If not, can farmers find a way to bring down the price to point that the general public can pay? Or failing the first two options, will farmers be forced to scale up to survive? I have a strong feeling that we will either need to learn to work together as a movement and make small farming more economically feasible -- a mix of government incentives, land-use agreements as linked above, equipment sharing, sensible market incentives for sustainable operations, and more -- or go back to a system that resembles what we had before this movement started, albeit with less chemicals.
I know that plenty of young people are making the choice to farm on a small scale. But can they farm at the right scale with enough commitment and business skills to be on the land in 20 years? My contribution to this question and problem, at this point in my life, is to cross one skill set off that long list above: web designer/developer. Like this project, Small Farm Central, attempts, we need to find ways to work together as a community of small farmers and harness our collective power and knowledge to strengthen the group. This will not be an easy task for such a geographically disparate group that is inherently independent, but as I said in my last post, for survival we need to find a way to work together without compromising the individuality of each farm. I believe that I am doing my small part and I'm sure each of us are to an extent, but will it be enough?
I'd love to hear your comments on this topic. How you have dealt with it in your life and farming career? Are there any opportunities we should take as a community?
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