American Farmers: An Endangered Species

The decreasing population of American farmers means less diversity of crops, vacated rural communities, and reduced food security.
By Daniel Imhoff
April 18, 2012
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We don’t have enough people becoming farmers, and we’re starting to import food to fill the gap. And yet few people are debating our flagging national food security with the fervor expressed about oil imports or manufacturing jobs shipped overseas.

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Every five to seven years, Congress passes a little understood legislation called the Farm Bill. To a large extent, the Farm Bill writes the rules and sets the playing field for America’s contemporary food system, determining what we eat, how much it costs, and where it is grown. You may not be happy with what you learn. In this excerpt from Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight (Watershed Media, 2012), read about the current state of American farmers and how the Farm Bill affects this vital community. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 12, “Who Will Grow Our Food?” Stop by our online store's promotional page to purchase Food Fight at a 25-percent discount until the end of 2012. 

“If we are not careful, we could lose the farm and the food system on our watch.” That drastic warning came from A.G. Kawamura in 2005, when he was secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Kawamura was not only alluding to how important forward-thinking policy is to the food system, but also to the fact that people who grow food for a living are becoming a dying breed. Already, agriculture is greatly diminished in terms of economic measures: it represents just 1.2 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product; services make up 77 percent and manufacturing 22 percent of GDP. It’s becoming a forgotten career path as well.

Principal farm operators over age 65 now outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of more than seven to one. Over the next 20 years, 400 million acres of agricultural lands—an area roughly five times the size of all our national parks combined—will be transferred to new owners. But who will be those new owners? Youth continue to migrate out from the corn-rich “heartland” and leave agriculture altogether. Many interested younger Americans simply can’t afford the costs of entry into farming. Others won’t accept the economic instability of the job. Meanwhile, each year the United States edges toward becoming a net importer of foods; already we import more than $80 billion in agricultural products each year. (See "U.S. Food Trade on the Rise" in the Image Gallery.)

In short, we don’t have enough people becoming farmers, and we’re starting to import food to fill the gap. And yet few people are debating our flagging national food security with the fervor expressed about oil imports or manufacturing jobs shipped overseas.

Even our domestic foods are processed and distributed by an ever-smaller group of corporations. Today, the majority of our food supply is in the hands of foreign producers or CEOs—as opposed to family farmers and a diverse corps of processors and regional distributors.

With just 2 percent of the U.S. population producing food for the remaining 98 percent, the efficiency of the existing food system is staggering. In 1900 it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1990 that number had shrunk to 6 hours. Similarly, in 1929 it took 85 hours of human labor to produce 1,000 pounds of broiler chickens, but by 1980 the same could be produced with less than 1 hour of labor. Imagine someone processing 1,000 pounds of chicken meat in less than an hour. It can be hard to comprehend the scale, mechanization, and infrastructure of a system that can produce 9 billion meat chickens every year.

While such efficiency is impressive, it comes with costs and trade-offs. Fewer hours of labor means fewer farmers. Fewer farmers means more consolidation, less diversity of crops, vacated rural communities, and reduced food security.

100,000 New American Farmers

In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack introduced the idea of using Farm Bill programs to add 100,000 new American farmers (an echo of a Clinton-era program to add 100,000 police officers to the nation’s streets). Given population trends, however, these newcomers would barely begin to replace the aging farming generation. Still it’s a step in the right direction. More farmers and food systems workers could mean a new generation of stewards of the land and a vessel for the skills and traditions of agriculture that are at risk of being lost. A concerted new farmer program could help to increase the number of small and mid-sized farms, boost food entrepreneurship, and reverse poverty in rural areas. Job creation—increasing the number of farmers—seems certain to be central to future Farm Bills. It will surely become part of Farm Bill rhetoric to justify ongoing agricultural policies as well, especially as budget constraints take center stage. (See the Share of Beginning Farmers by County map for more information about the shortage of new farmers in the U.S.)

The push for more farmers is finding support in the surging nationwide interest in local food production. These local food systems cover a great deal of ground: farmers who grow food; school and institutional cafeterias that purchase it; processing facilities that add value to fruits, vegetables, and meat and dairy products; chefs and agropreneurs developing new cuisine and products around local foods; new markets and distribution networks that link producers and eaters. Rebuilding local or regional food systems does not mean an end to international food trade, as some often suggest. It merely means restoring some geographic and seasonal balance to food production. In an era of growing populations and increasing climate uncertainty, food producers will be more closely interconnected than ever before.

The Food Hub

One example gaining traction in Farm Bill circles is the Regional Food Hub. This is a centralized facility where local produce and animal products are aggregated, stored, processed, and distributed. There are already more than 100 operational food hubs around the country, with large clusters in the Midwest and Northeast. The average food hub generates $700,000 in annual sales, along with an estimated 13 jobs. This means new marketing opportunities for local farmers, as the average food hub is supplied by 40 small and mid-size farms. Food Hubs are a prime example of applying new approaches to management, technology, marketing, and infrastructure to revitalize traditional food production arrangements. Farmers receive a fair price for their products and consumers value the quality of their food and the experience of interacting with and supporting local farmers.

There are other signs of hope for the next generation of American farmers. Innovative partnerships are combining local, state, and federal programs to establish revolving loan funds and forgivable loan funds to help new growers get started. The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills contained several provisions to assist beginning farmers and ranchers—and USDA leaders have shown a renewed interest in young farmers. Yet many of these programs initiated by the recent Farm Bills, such as the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program (see “Beginning Farm Programs Initiated by Recent Farm Bills” further along in this article) either remain underfunded or are still sitting on a shelf waiting to be enacted.

To keep agriculture healthy into the future, subsidies will need to benefit the young and beginning farmer as well as the older, well-established or corporate farmer. Direct Payments—because they are based on historical baselines and not current farming practices—lock potential farmers out of the system unless they can afford to purchase land already receiving payments. An alternate payment scheme that better rewards hard work, crop yields, and conservation practices would draw more beginning farmers into the trade.

USDA Dietary Guidelines: What’s On Your Plate?

Consumers could do their part in local farm job creation by eating their daily recommended allotment of fruits and vegetables. The USDA has estimated that only one in five Americans actually eats five daily servings of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Depending on the season, many Americans increasingly rely on farmers from other countries to keep them supplied year round with tomatoes, apples, and berries. According to a 2006 USDA study, if Americans increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet the USDA dietary recommendations, the U.S. would need an additional 13 million acres of “specialty crops.” That’s more than three times what the country currently devotes to fruit and vegetable production and slightly more than all the acres in California currently under crop, orchard and vineyard production. One has to wonder what an impact that would have on new farmers and emerging food hubs around the country.

Beginning Farm Programs Initiated by Recent Farm Bills:

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Individual Development Accounts (BFRIDA) pilot program: Pilot program that provides beginning farmers of limited means with business and financial education and matched savings accounts.

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP): Small-budget program that funds education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance initiatives for beginning farmers and ranchers.

Office of Advocacy and Outreach: Established by 2008 Farm Bill as a coordinating tool for all beginning and minority farmer programs.

Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program (“Section 2501”): Provides grants to organizations that assist minority farmers in owning and operating farms and participating in agricultural and USDA-specific programs.

The Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher Contract Land Sales Pilot Program: Guarantees federal loan to retiring farmers who self-finance the sale of their land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentive Program (CRP TIP): Creates incentives for CRP contract holders to sell or lease to beginning or minority farmers.

Compiled by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition 

Beginning Farmer Incubator Programs

At a time when American farmers are aging and mega-farms are gobbling up medium-sized operations, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) has a bold mission: bringing new faces to agriculture. This is no small task. Farming remains one of the most challenging professions, requiring experience, planning and business skills, startup capital, and access to land.

ALBA is dedicated to breaking down those barriers to becoming a farmer. Every year, 25 people graduate from its rigorous farmer education program in the Salinas Valley—referred to as the nation’s Salad Bowl because nearly two-thirds of all leafy greens are grown in this one valley. Farm Bill dollars, nonprofit foundation grants, and a burgeoning organic produce distribution business provide the funding for ALBA’s farmer incubator project.

“The Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), established in the 2008 Farm Bill, is vital fuel for the economic engine resulting from beginning farmers’ work,” says Gary Peterson, executive director of ALBA. “Taxpayers should be proud of the results. There is a huge return on investment from these dollars, and a waiting list of people interested in this program.”

To enter the ALBA farmer incubator program, students must first complete a six-month basic training, which includes 150 hours of farm training and field days, culminating with writing a farm plan and applying for a plot of ALBA’s land to cultivate. Each year, up to 40 students farm on ALBA’s land during many stages of their training.

ALBA is designed to nurture a beginning farmer for seven years. After that, the training and below-cost land rentals end. Graduates have to make it on their own in the marketplace and pay the going rate for land rentals.

Many of their graduate growers are finding success. “One of the real strengths of this program is the direct marketing we are able to do with the quality organic produce that is being grown by our students and graduates,” says Peterson. ALBA Organics, the organization’s distribution arm, purchased $1.5 million worth of organic produce from present students and program graduates in 2010. Those fruits and vegetables supply the cafeteria systems of Stanford University, University of California Santa Cruz, and other large buyers.

ALBA also focuses on a sector of the farming population often overlooked by many policy programs: low-income, primarily Hispanic communities. These are farmers like Guilebaldo Nuñez, who grew up on farms in Mexico. Nuñez entered the ALBA program in 2004, with the desire to learn organic farming, initially leasing three acres. “At ALBA I really improved my techniques,” says Nuñez. “I attended several educational events regarding organic farming and leadership that have been an important contribution to my success, because I had always focused on improving the quality of my products. Selling healthy products makes me feel good as a farmer and as a person.”

Today Nuñez Farm leases 13 acres at ALBA and sells organic produce (his, and that of other ALBA farmers) at 13 farmers markets in the Bay Area. He owns two tractors and recently installed two large high tunnels, or hoop houses, to help him grow winter crops. Annual sales have expanded consistently. His business sustains five full-time jobs and nine part-time jobs including seven family members employed on his farm. The Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program is a testament to how long it can take to transplant a Farm Bill program from inside the DC Beltway into the ground. It took 15 years—three Farm Bill cycles—from the time it was first floated as a marker bill on the House floor, until it was finally championed by representatives, written into law, and funded by the Appropriations Committee. The Beginning Farmer Rancher and Development Program is a relatively small budget program that effectively addresses an urgent issue for the future of food production. Yet like more than 30 other such programs, it currently has no baseline for spending past 2013.

More from Food Fight: Corn Ethanol: Growing Food, Feed, Fiber ... and Fuel? 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Food Fight, published by Watershed Media, 2012. Visit the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store's promotional page before the end of 2012 to buy Food Fight at a 25-percent discount. 

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Post a comment below.


Cornelia Pierce
5/22/2012 8:17:56 PM
you are so right! in the late 70's when inheritance taxes were worse, I was a 20 year old college student when I inherited the family homestead farm, I had to sell off the contents of the house and barns, the livestock, my car, and take on two jobs to pay the governments piece of the action, and let me tell you it was touch and go, and left me broke for a decade. I held on, no thanks to the government,My husband has been helping local farmers do estate planning to help avoid the danger of being slammed in case of sudden death of the older generation, it makes me mad as hell when I hear someone spout off about increasing taxes on the "rich" nothing like being a innocent farmer and waking up one morning to find yourself an instant millionaire because a parent died, and the value of the land has sent your net worth into outer space.

t brandt
5/12/2012 2:41:31 PM
Overlooked is the govt's insidious plan to put the small farmer out of business by keeping the Death Tax on the books: a 1200 acre farm has a market value of $4-8 million. With half of our farmers now over 58 y/o, their deaths over the next two decades will force their heirs,suddenly land rich/cash poor, to sell out to pay the tax. Only the large corporartions will have the capital to buy. It's all part of BigBrother's plan to subjugate us by controlling, among other things, our food supply...Buy local; grow your own; vote for small govt.

Sharon Catania
5/11/2012 2:42:40 AM
This is such a frightening time in our lives, especially with the government playing such a dominating role in our lives. Not trying to make this political, BUT it is. Socialism includes government takeover of all farms and/or grabbing land for their agenda, which is controlling all food growth and what is grown, how it's grown and what additives are included. Monsanto is in the running for takeover under the government. They will control the product and the price. We do not need GMO foods. We all need to know what is in all foods. We NEED TO SUPPORT OUR FARMERS.

5/10/2012 12:50:17 AM
If they were serious about encouraging young farmers they wouldn't be passing legislation that restricts young people from working on family farms. I agree with Robert Lacoe, government is regulating small farmers out of business!

5/9/2012 1:37:21 PM
I doubt that the addition of younger farmers will ever take place. The Feds and big Ag will not allow it as long as those in power can produce regulations that keep the small producer out of business. With all the talk about sustainability the only thing I see sustainable is the destruction of America, capitalism, and then mankind.

5/3/2012 10:32:56 PM
"One example gaining traction in Farm Bill circles is the Regional Food Hub. This is a centralized facility where local produce and animal products are aggregated, stored, processed, and distributed." As much as this statement might appear to be a good thing in comparison to importing food or large corporations, I believe it is a great evil against the American people and that there is a much simpler plan that is better for the consumer, the farmer, the animals, and the land. That is freedom of contract between the farmer and consumer, where all of the money paid for the food goes straight to the place that is producing it, and that is a freedom that is under attack across America. It's a new old concept: know your farmer. My friend is a small egg producer and he lives in the country and I live in the big city. He brings his eggs to town and along the way also brings in fresh milk, cream, and butter from his neighbor who is an Amish farmer. I've pet the cows, my kids have fed the chickens during farm open houses. That is how it should be and yet the MN Dept of Ag wants to put this man behind bars for over a year because of it; we believe that since this is direct contract between two parties of legal substances there is no need for licensing and regulation and are hoping that food freedom wins, here in MN and in similar cases across the country. Read more at

4/19/2012 2:16:58 AM
Thank for your spotlighting this dire situation. It's time to discuss openly the challenges faced by farmers and the agricultural system in the United States. Nancy

4/18/2012 6:37:44 PM
Thanks, MEN for publishing this article to get the discussion going about the impending crisis in American agriculture. With the average age of our farmers ~ 58 yrs and the "death tax" that essentially will take away the family farm as these aging farmers die, more and more of our food production will go to large corporations, not necessarily controlled by Americans. The start up costs to go into commercial ag is staggering: literally millions of dollars to buy land and machinery. Most young people have trouble scraping up a down payment on a house. Govt programs available are mostly burdened with red tape or directed at "social injustice,' limiting their efficacy. We need problem solvers, not problem makers in Washington to work on solutions.

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