As more and more young people drift toward cities, it begs an important question: Who are our farmers? What does the next generation of farmers in America look like? At worst, farming seemed to be a dying industry. Perhaps surprisingly, this isn't entirely the case. While young people aren't replacing the exact number of farmers we've lost, there's been a significant growth of people under the age of 35 moving to rural areas to farm. That's right: Millennials are doing their part in keeping farms alive. Notably, this increase in farmers could make the industry more organic and help improve local food growth.
The northeasten part of the United States has especially seen an uptick in younger people farming. There’s been a 2.2 percent increase nationally in farmers under the age of 35 between 2007 and 2012 according to the US Department of Agriculture -- 40 percent in Maine alone. It’s also been increasing in the rural areas of New Hampshire and Vermont.
Liz Whitehurst’s move from the office to a three-acre farm at 30 years of age was highlighted by The Washington Post. She went to Upper Marlboro, Maryland, after deciding to leave her nonprofit jobs and joins the movement of millenials to rural farmland. Called “Owl’s Nest,” Whitehurst bought her farm from a retiring farmer two years ago.
She opted to farm organically, limiting her use of pesticides and fertilizer. Instead, she rotates her fields that grow cabbages, peppers, salad greens, and tomatoes. She and two other friends harvest the crops and sell them to local restaurants and farmers markets to make ends meet. As she notes, money is a little tighter than it used to be, and there aren’t traditional benefits like she had at her nonprofit job.
Even though Whitehurst had to give up certain qualities of life, she enjoys the instant gratification on farming. “I wanted to have a positive impact, and that just felt very distant in my other jobs out of college,” she told the Post. “In farming, on the other hand, you make a difference. Your impact is immediate.”
Millennials turning to a farming career will push the growing age of the average farmer down, along with the rate of farms shutting down. While larger farmland purchases have risen, it’s important that smaller farmland stays in existence. They have the benefit of providing enough crops for a community while also being able to alter their land easily to meet consumer demand and changing standards.
This also creates a way for multiple farmers to grow food together. Grocery chains like Wal-Mart and SuperValu have reached out to these local farmers, giving some competition to national suppliers. Whitehurst had the potential to work with an online grocery store, but ultimately passed. However, this is a trend that’s ultimately going to continue.
“Young farmers tend to start small and sell to direct markets, because that’s a viable way for them to get into farming,” Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, told The Washington Post. “But many are shifting gears as they get into it — getting bigger or moving into wholesale.”