Why the US desperately needs more millennial farmers

A millennial farmer feeding a cow from a large bottle in a field

In the United States, the average farmer is older than 50.

This is a problem: As these farmers retire, younger farmers are less likely to take their place, compared to those in previous generations. Farming may be considered one of the oldest professions, but working off the land doesn’t have the same appeal for the tech-driven, millennial generation.

Many farmers are drawn to the industry because farming is in their blood — it’s what their parents’ parents did — and the farms are passed down from generation to generation.

“It’s so hard to get started when you didn’t grow up in farming,” Meredith Bell, the 37-year-old founder of Autonomy Farms in California, said in an email. Bell quit her corporate career to open a farm in 2013. The initial cost of land can be expensive, and the programs for new farmers offered though the U.S. Department of Agriculture are tough to navigate, Bell said. She said access to land is one of the biggest deterrents for a younger generation starting to farm.

Why farming isn’t cool — yet

Access to land isn’t the only barrier. For eager college grads, farming doesn’t have the same appeal that many other industries have.

“Many people still have an impression of farmers as older men wearing overalls that work from sun up to sun down, make very little money and are uneducated,” said Jeremiah McElwee, senior vice president of merchandising and product development of Thrive Market, an online retailer that sells natural and organic food products at reduced costs. “Having worked with hundreds of farmers, I can tell you there is nothing further from the truth with modern farmers. Just like any other profession, you meet all kinds of people with an amazingly diverse set of educational backgrounds in the farming community.” McElwee added that the more modern version of farmers hasn’t been properly communicated in media.

The decline of farming will lead to fewer food choices and an increased risk of a degradation of quality in the food supply system. With more modern, entrepreneurial farmers and smaller farms spread out over regions, there is more food diversity as well as a lower risk for big agricultural companies to take over, McElwee said.

Farming is lagging behind industries that are using technology to be more efficient, more environmentally sound and attractive to a young workforce. The technology that does exist in farming “is intended for large scale farms, not the small family farms, which happens to be the demographic that is rapidly quitting farming,” Bell said. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and those who want to use agriculture to better the world may see an opportunity here.

The next generation of farmers can be environmental heroes

Technology in farming should honor nature rather than fight against it. If this is done right, it could have an incredibly positive impact on the planet. Thrive Market, for example, works with tomato growers in northern California “that are able to use GPS technology and sensors that track the health of each individual plant,” McElwee said.

“This allows them to effectively water each plant to its needs, thereby saving millions of gallons of water a year in a very dry region,” he said. “I just think of all of the brilliant minds developing technology right now that would be incredible modern farmers.” There are seemingly endless possibilities for technology in farming.

There is an incredible opportunity for young farmers to be a part of the solution for climate change. “Today, agriculture creates under 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield, the organic yogurt maker, said in an email. He said it’s widely accepted that agriculture has great potential to reverse climate change by the way it improves soil health, stores carbon and captures emissions.

The win-win-win aspects of organic farming should have broad appeal in attracting younger, more health-conscious and environmentally active millennial farmers. Hirshberg said organic farming can reduce the use of toxic chemicals, improve soil carbon and water quality and enhance animal health.

For many millennials, Hirshberg said, the tough choice has to be made to leave the family farm and move to the city for work, because they don’t see a way to earn a living on the farm. “Organic is changing this narrative, though, as millennials are seeing that the higher price paid for organic products can provide a more dependable way to earn a living and either build on their family’s business or start a new one,” he said.

Plus, the benefits of organic farming has a ripple effect, Hirshberg said. A Penn State University study found that “organic hot spots” — counties with higher than average number of organic farms and businesses — have more financial prosperity. “The presence of organic farms and businesses was found to boost median household incomes by an average of $2,000, and reduce poverty levels by an average of 1.3% points,” Hirshberg said.

Changing the narrative around farming

Social media is key for getting more young people into farming. “Storytelling is such a huge part of the success of a small farmer,” Bell said. “We are farming because we love it and we truly believe in it, but customers equally love supporting us because of it and when they see the successes and struggles, they feel it as well.”

Chefs can do their part to promote small local farmers. “When they utilize products from small farms, it often encourages a dining guest to then go find that product because they enjoyed it so much,” Bell said.

Grants may also ease the path for young farmers. Bell highlighted Community Alliance With Family Farmers, a California-based nonprofit that offers “a huge amount of education for beginning farmers and encourages people to join the industry.”

McElwee hopes the world’s increasing digital connectedness will inspire future young farmers. “As we all become more interconnected in the digital age, our cities have grown and become even greater cultural hubs,” he said. And while young people gravitate toward metropolitan areas for the food, music, art and job opportunities, he believes there are many stories to be told in less saturated places.

“Often lost is the connection to the earth and natural surroundings,” McElwee said. That’s “not always captured or shared when it comes to messaging around farming and food.”