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Who Will Grow Your Food? Part I: The Coming Demographic Crisis in Agriculture

Note: This is the beginning of a multi-part series on agricultural education, the farming demographic crisis and the question of who will grow our food - what the problems are, how we will find new farmers, how they will be trained. To me, this is one of the most urgent questions of our time.

A quick, Jay Leno style quiz for the man and woman on the street.

Who will grow your food in the coming decades?

A. My friendly neighborhood agribusinessman will grow my food on a plantation the size of Wyoming using nearly enslaved non-white folks who are deported minutes after harvest. Or maybe there will be robots involved somewhere. Yeah, robots are good.

B. Farmers, of course. You know, those dumb people in the flyover states that we tolerate because they give us dinner. Where will they come from? Well, don't they grow in the ground upside down like raspberries? Or do I mean zucchini? Well, either way, I think they reproduce by spores.

C. Food grows? You mean in the ground? With DIRT on it? And bugs? Ewwww.

The above answers may be parody, but only slightly. It is safe to say that very few people in the US have given any serious consideration to the question of how their food will be grown in the future. And yet, as Aaron Newton and I observed in _A Nation of Farmers_, even if we weren't facing energy depletion and climate change and enormous social inequity, we'd be facing an agricultural crisis - one that is purely demographic.

As of 2002, the average American farmer was nearly 56 years old. The average American small farmer is over 60. More than one out of every four farmers is over 65 years old and rapidly facing retirement, and less than 6% of all American farmers are younger than 35 years old. Moreover, in at least one study (which I can't find again at the moment) the majority of farmers expressed that they were reluctant to see their children follow in their footsteps and face the boom and bust cycles, poverty and hardship of farming in the current atmosphere. That is, in most cases, there's no one to follow them.

I know a dozen farmers in this situation. John and his wife Allie live near us and run a lovely farm. They sell pork and meat rabbits, as well as beef cattle, hay and apples from their orchard. John is 55ish and so is his wife. They live on the farm John grew up in with his two children and John's parents, in their 80s. The parents are increasingly unable to help on the farm, and the children are now in college, with no real intention of returning to the land - and John is torn - he'd love to have his daughter or his son follow in his footsteps in some ways, but he can't honestly telll them it is the life he wants for them. The kids have watched dozens of the neighboring farmers go under, and while they have the skill set, they fear that the farm is ultimately doomed. Allie had to go to work during the last time prices collapsed to afford college for their kids, so now John does it all himself, and it gets harder as he gets older. We buy hay and apples from him, or from Dora, his 83 year old Mom. She sorts apples on a stool and tends her husband who had a stroke last year. We hope each year that the next one won't be the year they sell out.

My closest neighbor up the hill sold out. He was nearing 80 after dairy farming along these hills for more than 50 years. He had three children and not one dreamed of taking up the morning milkings, and he was fortunate enough to retire at the height of the (comparatively small) local real estate boom. So at the end of my road, down below the hill are a row of McMansions designed to attract people who want a country place. The problem is that the kind of people who like McMansions don't want to live in our rural space - the houses turn over often, so in the 8 years they've been here, some have been sold as often as four times, others are for rent now. Frank doesn't like seeing the houses on the fields he hayed and grazed his cows, from his new house at the top of the hill, but farmers don't have retirement plans, and what could he do?

You can hear a thousand stories like these if you talk to the older farmers. You can see partial solutions, like match up programs that connect people who want to farm with farmers , but the reality is this - the average American farmer is getting old. And again, even if we didn't have to face climate change's expected depredations on food, even if we didn't have to face the end of heavily industrial agriculture due to energy depletion and climate emissions, even if we weren't facing a world where structured inequity with a billion starving people and one out of nine supposedly-affluent Americans requiring food stamps - and we are - we'd be facing an agricultural crisis. All those things together mean we are facing a demographic disaster.

Why disaster? Well, for just about all of human history, the main way of getting farmers was to apprentice them to an older farmer, generally in their family. Over the last 200 years, industrialization has gradually reduced the number of farmers from about 1 in 2.5 people to 1 in 100. During the long period where agricultural populations were in decline, there were always more children of farmers than were needed - so some of them could be "drained off" from rural area to go to urban ones. Family farmers generally had a fairly large number of children and as fewer and fewer people were needed to do the work of agriculture, it was perfectly possible to continue the old way - raising an-ever smaller number of farmers on the apprentice system. There were enormous costs to this system - the destruction of rural communities, the "rural brain drain," the loss of a population that understands where food comes from, tremendous waste of energy and resources, and of course all the worst excesses of industrial agriculture, which derive mostly not from malice, but from the need to replace human farm labor. But it could, broadly, be sustained.

But all that has changed, and changed radically and painfully. Broadly speaking, about a third of all emissions worldwide are tied to agriculture. In the Global South, the worst of these costs are tied to burning forests for agriculture, but in the North, the highest costs come from industrialization of agriculture. They come from the heavy equipment and long shipping created by centralization, from the nitrous oxide produced by overfertilization with NPK fertilizers, from the methane produced by CAFO livestock operations. If we are to address our emissions crisis, we are going to have to face the fact that we can't go on replacing human beings with fossil fuels - it isn't an option.

Moreover, there's a great deal of reason to be concerned, as my readers know, about the long term availability of those fossil fuels. It doesn't take a vast decline in access to energy to cause an energy crisis - the 1970s oil shocks arose from a shortfall of just 5%, while Cubans lost an average of 20lbs and found themselves eating fried grapefruit peels with a decline in oil imports of less than 20%. When oil prices rose to $148 barrel and potash prices skyrocketed, farmers found themselves heading out of business, or reducing their fertilizer inputs and selling off equipment. In the poor world, those rising energy costs left land fallow because farmers, who desperately needed the food, couldn' afford to plant. One doesn't have to believe all the oil will disappear overnight to imagine that an oil shock could have profound effects on the ability of industrial production to continue.

The combination of climate change and energy depletion means that we will have to replace fossil fuels in agriculture with renewable resources. But that's easier said than done - there is a functioning solar powered tractor out there, but it isn't exactly mainstream, and it is extremely costly. In the Global South home scale methane digestion and biogas as well as homescale biofuels have an important role in agriculture - but they don't replace human labor. Animal manures, used wisely, could replace some synthesized fertilizer while treated humanure might replace others, but that requires more localized agriculture, where animal manures are spaced out according to populations.

In much of the Global South and through most of human history, populations have required 1/4 to 1/2 of their population (or more) to be engaged in the food system at some level to keep everyone eating. A large portion of those were farmers of some sort, and even those who aren't farmers often produce vegetables and small livestock to supplement their diets.

The easiest (and do not take this to mean that I am claiming this is easy) renewable resource to replace fossil fuels is human beings. They are extremely abundant (6.8 billion and counting), and have something that fossil fuels don't - those nice big brains. Thoughtful, intelligent agriculture can replace many times the fossil fuel equivalent in human labor - that is, it isn't a matter of replacing machine horsepowers with an equivalent number of human beings, because we're smarter than machines. And not only are human beings widely available, but those smarter practices are often much less destructive.

How many more people do we need? Well, for rough calculation purpose Aaron and I have argued that since most low-industrialization societies (not pre-industrial, but with access to dramatically fewer energy resources) both in the present and the past have about 1/3 of their population involved in agriculture either as full time farmers or as part time farmers. This was a rough calculation and not intended to be precise, but for the purposes of rhetoric, Aaron and I have called for 100 million new farmers. Most of those, we suspect, will not be full time farmers, but small gardeners and market farmers. We will also, however, need millions of full time farmers as well.

Even if the 100 million number is wildly overstated (and what figure is necessary will depend on the shape of climate change and energy depletion, rather than on preference, realistically speaking), we will need many, many more farmers than the ones we have, and many younger farmers.

Necessity, then, is leading us to a vast cultural shift, and one we're ill prepared for. On Science Blogs there's a lot of discussion (good and valuable) about the importance of science education and preparing young people for careers in science. In the culture at large, there's a lot talk (good and valuable) about the coming demographic shift in which we will need a lot more nurses, doctors and specialists in elder care. There is almost no discussion whatsoever of the even more pressing crisis in agriculture - the profound need to train young people to grow food. The assumption has been that technology and resources are infinite and the path to ever-fewer farmers and offshoring of agriculture will continue indefinitely.

Even more than the "technology and cheap energy will save us" assumption that is so prevalent and wrong in our society is another underlying assumption, even more destructive. It is that because agriculture is unskilled labor, work suitable to people who aren't qualified for better and higher things, we will simply be able to handle this through market forces - as low wage jobs disappear in one area, those people will just become farmers. But that's ridiculous on several levels. The first is that low wage workers can't buy land, and often can't even rent it. But the more important one is this - agriculture is highly skilled, highly thoughtful, important work that requires an enormously varied skill set. I know this because I've been trying to acquire it for most of the last decade, and I now finally feel like I know enough to describe what I don't know. Learning to farm was considerably harder than academia, than learning multiple languages, reading Kant or writing publishable papers. It was also a hell of a lot more fun, but that doesn't diminish the difficulty of understanding an ecological system that you depend upon.

Let us say that we will need only 5% of the US population to become farmers. But since the vast majority of farmers are facing retirement within the next two decades, and under 35 farmers are such a tiny percentage, that means we will need to train 30-50 times as many young farmers in the next two decades as we have been doing. The numbers could be substantially higher. But where would even those small numbers of farmers come from? Even if the younger farmers were to have a lot of kids and encourage them to stay on the farm, that doesn't resolve the problem.

So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society - while we've always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn't happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that's the problem we face.

In _A Nation of Farmers_ one of the things that Aaron and I argue is that the next generation of American farmers will have to come out of the garden, and from other nations rather than off the American farm. That is, the children who grow up with some knowledge of growing things will largely fall into two categories. They will grow up with parents who garden, and teach their children to garden, and who take that set of skills and build upon it, or they will be the migrants themselves or the children of immigrants who come from cultures where agriculture is more common than it is today.

Both of these approaches (and I'm going to write more about each of them in a coming post) have their issues, however. Immigrant populations often struggle to find land and establish themselves as farmers - often what happens is that they end up as impoverished laborers on someone else's farm, never able to get their own land or establish their own farms. Social programs push recent immigrants into cities, where there are a lot of other immigrants like them, rather than on to the land - Hmong refugees, for example, are one fo the great success stories in agriculture in a number of states, but have established themselves as farmers with great difficulty, often after an extended cycle of poverty in urban apartments, where their agricultural traditions are valueless. Moreover, many immigrants to the US want "better" for their children than an agrarian future - they want their kids to become professionals, not farmers like they were. They recognize that agriculture is not a high-status profession, or highly paid, and they want their kids to have more than they have - agriculture is not a way to achieve that, and that would have to change to make a substantial cultural shift.

The children of gardeners have other difficulties. For the affluent ones (and we should remember that gardeners are often not affluent) the problem of status is central. The contempt we have for farmers is evident in the fact that we do not ever direct children towards agriculture as a profession if they are bright or thoughtful. In the 1980s, as I was transitioning from middle to high school, I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to attend the local "Aggie" the farming vocational school. I couldn't imagine a better school situation than to get to work in a garden and with animals. My guidance counselor was very kind, but simply observed "Sharon, that's for kids who aren't smart enough to go to college. You aren't like that." That was an object lesson in the value we place on agriculture. I wish now, of course, that I'd had the ovaries to insist, but I was 13, and I believed the grownups.

What kind of radical cultural transformation would we have to have to allow middle class parents to say "I hope you grow up to be a farmer." Or "Honey, why don't you take some agriculture classes along with calc and physics?" Or "Honey, have you considered a cow college? Cows are great!" What would it take to make agriculture a profession of status? Eric and I are going to explore this question in one of the next posts in this series, talking about how we might begin integrating agricuture and systems science together for kids and college students.

When one out of three or two of every American kids was farmer, you could count on a large number of bright young people to grow up and become farmers. Even after the population began to decline, we benefitted from the fact that, as the expression goes, "The American public is lucky that farming is a disease not a job." That is, despite every pressure to send out anyone bright and thoughtful, some of the best and brightest still stayed at it. It is a testament to the power of agriculture.

But the truth is that rural areas can't bear the brain drain forever, and that we need thoughtful, well educated, creative people in agriculture *DESPERATELY* because as Greenpa put it in the comments to a previous post, we're inventing a viable agriculture. That is, we've never before had to deal with the fact that there are no new frontiers, there's no land we can afford to abandon, there's no new place to go to avoid the consequences of fouling our land and wasting our resources. We need people who can create a sustainable - not in the superficial sense of the word, but really, truly sustainable - that is, can go on forever - agriculture. And that will take the best minds we have, and every kind of human intelligence, wisdom and thoughtfulness. And we need it soon.

For low income urban kids, even in the garden, the problem will be access to land, and also, access to a world of nature that expands beyond the highly structured nature of very small garden plots. That is, farming isn't just learning to grow food, or learning to raise animals - it is learning to manage a space that is both wild and tame, and to have them exist simultaneously. A good farm pasture should support nearly as much wildlife as a comparable forest. A farm woodlot should support even more. A community garden plot or a public park offer little chance to teach kids to know and trust and understand the wild. We need a generation of people who have ties to such spaces - as I've written about before, establishing urban-rural ties may be our most central project.

We are facing a problem that literally has never been faced in human history - we don't have enough people who know how to feed us to keep going foward. And for the most part, we're not even fully aware of the problem. We have no plan going forward. And our children are being taught that farming is unworthy of them. This, folks, is a crisis.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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