Last week, we discussed the need for new farmers. Not only are we seeing a greater market for locally sourced foods, but a high percentage of farmers are already at retirement age and there are 6 times more farmers over 65 years of age than those who are less than 35.

Fortunately, there has been more interest in farming in the nation’s school systems. In their article titled “Agriculture programs show growing interest in farming,” Anna Mitchell and Charmaine Smith-Miles reported in scrippsnews on May 1, 2012 that on a national level, the Future Farmers of America (FFA) is experiencing record enrollment. “Statistics released in September 2011 show that there were 540,379 students enrolled in FFA chapters, an increase of 17,070 members from one year earlier. The organization has not had this many members in its 84-year history.”

In this economy, some speculate that new farmers are drawn to farming simply because of the nation’s high unemployment rate. There may be some truth in that. However, in its publication “Building a Future With Farmers, Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed,” the National Young Farmers Coalition reports that there is a genuine enthusiasm for pursuing agriculture: “The ‘good food’ movement—the interest and enthusiasm for organic, local and sustainably grown food now spreading across the country—is one of many factors bringing young people back to farming in the United States. Young people increasingly view farming as a physically engaging and fulfilling career that guarantees independence and leadership.”

Looking into the future then who will be our new farmers?
• Most will not have grown up on a farm. The National Young Farmers Coalition survey of 1,300 new farmers discovered that 78% did not grow up on a farm.
• Many farms will have at least one member with a part or full-time job off of the farm, to provide health care coverage and/or provide a pay check to cover times when the farm is not generating enough revenue. In 2007, most beginning farms had more off-farm income than on-the-farm income.
• Many will be women. Programs such as Annie’s Project are training women to be good farm business managers. In 2007, 48% of the beginning farms had women operators and for 16% of the beginning farms, a woman was the principal operator. Over 40% of all FFA members are female and about 50% of FFA state leadership positions are held by females.
• Many of the ‘new’ farmers will be older. In 2007, 32% were 55 or older. Many are choosing farming as a second career. One employment sector that could help supply new farmers is the military. The Department of Defense is proposing a smaller force to reduce costs and military members of the U.S. Armed Forces may elect to retire after 20 years of active duty. A Farmer-Veteran Coalition (FVC) has been formed “to mobilize our food and farming community to create healthy and viable futures for America’s veterans by enlisting their help in building our green economy, rebuilding our rural communities, and securing a safe and healthy food supply for all.”

Finally, since beginning farmers are more likely to operate smaller farms, they tend to produce less grain. In its Beginning Farmers and Ranchers report (May 2009), USDA included the following figure:

Next week –what are the challenges for new farmers?