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Our Ancient Farmers

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fsa-young

The average age of an American farmer is 58 years old. You might say, “who cares.” After all, nothing drives the LGM readership like rural America. But you do actually need farmers since people, you know, need to eat. Any profession with the average of 58 is in big trouble, perhaps with the exception of Supreme Court justice and that’s awfully arguable these days. Now, I find back to the land movements kind of odd because their promoters see them as political decisions when really they are deeply anti-political. My own view is that, like the late 60s and early 70s, young people have turned to food, DIY, and other hyper-local and largely rural issues because the big issues of the day seem so hard and impossible to deal with. If we can’t do anything meaningful about Vietnam climate change, at least I can control what I put into my body and get in touch with the land. There’s nothing really wrong with this and I suppose it’s an understandable response although not one I would take.

That said, we need farmers. Farming is not a real profitable profession. It takes a lot of capital. If you are going to do it, you need some financial stability up front. But what young people have that in an era of student debt and financial stagnation? So some people are trying to do something about it.

Starting a farm is hard for anyone, but Goodwin has an extra burden to bear: $9,000 in student loan debt. And although he works for both farms, Goodwin’s financial prospects are bleak. The average U.S. farm brought in only $43,750 in net income in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture), an amount usually divided between operators.

When it comes to his own farm’s income, Goodwin is often torn between buying what he needs to expand his operation or spending that money to pay back his student loans.

Stories like Goodwin’s have become a rallying cry for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an advocacy group representing farmers in the first 10 years of their professional careers.

“Farmers are stewarding our environment, producing food we eat, and they are the anchor of rural communities,” says Eric Hansen, policy analyst at NYFC. “A really important public benefit is being provided by these farmers.”

With the help of the NYFC, Representatives Chris Gibson (R-New York) and Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) introduced the Young Farmer Success Act in Congress last June. The bill would add farming to a list of careers that receive student loan relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Under the program, participants would have the balance of their student loans forgiven after working full-time on a farm for 10 years while making income-driven payments towards their loans. There would be no age limit to take advantage of the program, but eligible farmers would need to work on a farm or ranch that brings in annual gross revenue of $35,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) or more.

Some have criticized the bill for not putting an age or income cap on the program, but Hansen says that the bill’s wording ensures that those with the most need will be given the most aid. Because loan payments are based on a farmer’s yearly income, they will rise when his or her salary does. “If the farmer makes enough money, they will pay off the loans before the loan forgiveness kicks in,” Hansen wrote in an email.

Good idea. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

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  • Pseudonym

    Somehow I doubt the average farm worker is 58 years old (or a college graduate, for that matter). Maybe those people should have an opportunity to take an ownership stake in the farms, or to get an education, as well.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Very much my thinking. American food production is not exactly in a slump, it’s just that the US has decided to prioritize maximising agribusiness income over farm ownership by individuals or families, in the name of cheaper food theoretically.

      • Anonymous Troll

        There is an odd definition of “farmer” behind these statistics.

        From the source cited in the linked article: “3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million acres “. 1.5 acres per farmer??

        From the article: “He’s leasing 150-acres in Raeford, North Carolina, from the farm that he currently manages, Fussy Gourmet, owned by an eye surgeon in town.”

        I think they are counting a lot of old eye doctors as farmers, and probably a lot of people with hobby horse farms.

        • rea

          “3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million acres “. 1.5 acres per farmer??

          Would that not be 1.5 farmers per acre?

          • BiloSagdiyev

            That depends on soil conditions and how closely you plant ’em.

          • Anonymous Troll

            Oops. You are right.

        • paul.c.klos

          It can be difficult to get an accurate count indeed. My wife’s family owns and operates a large farm up by lack Roosevelt in WA. But in any given decade it would be difficult to say how many farmers they were or what acreage. 50 years ago it would have been one large farm one farmer. 20 years age a odd bunch land all held in various ways by 4 of 6 brothers still actually working the farm and 2 not (but they lease their shares privately back to their brothers.) Now with internal leasing it would look like 6 farmers on the farm. Also what to make of all the land they lease some times quite small (often for a water right). Would the owners be Farmers?

      • J. Otto Pohl

        This has been going on for over 30 years now. There was some resistance in the 1980s. But, in more recent decades it has largely been treated as an accomplished fact. Food in the US is in fact relatively cheap. The percentage of people’s incomes spent on food has declined even as the proportions spent on rent and medical costs not to mention higher education have increased dramatically.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          “people want their food and they want their boats- one of them’s gotta be cheap”

    • paul.c.klos

      ‘Somehow I doubt the average farm worker is 58 years old (or a college graduate, for that matter)’

      Depends on what kind of farm you are talking about…

      Pleas be more specific.

  • Srsly Dad Y

    Eh. If people want to be farmers, fine, but I don’t see why in the world’s most advanced economy we should be encouraging young people to try it as a small business. We need food, sure, but we don’t “need farmers,” at most we “need farms,” and it’s not even clear that’s true because according to the linked article USDA is warning about increased reliance on — gasp! — imports. Imagine that, a rich country might grow less and less of its own food and buy it from poorer countries. Obviously we all hate Big Ag and wish all our food could come from small organic farms, but that ain’t gonna happen at affordable prices, and steering young people to “start businesses” to “preserve small towns” and “hold the land” in their families seems like a fundamentally right wing impulse to me and likely to produce a lot of young, failed ex-farmers.

    In fact the whole thing reminds me a bit of how we probably “need lawyers” in rural communities too.

    • keta

      I too shave with the “…” for the baby ass smoothness.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      I agree with the notion a lot of them won’t make it, and object to the idea it’s a “fundamentally right wing” impulse- but to a degree it goes back to the question, in a country with a labor surplus, what are people *supposed* to do?

      • Anonymous Troll

        As Yoda said:

        “There is no labor surplus. There is only insufficient demand for currently produced goods and services caused by unequal distribution of purchasing power, with the rich time shifting consumption into the future”

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Back to the land is not a “fundamentally right wing impulse.” It is one that some right wing regimes and thinkers have advocated. It is also one in which many left wing regimes such as the USSR during the Virgin Lands Campaign, China during the Cultural Revolution, and Cambodia under Pol Pot have indulged in as well. Left wing versions of back to the land differ from right wing ones. But, even the industrially focused Soviet government undertook what was essentially urban European colonization of Asian rural areas.

      • twbb

        “in a country with a labor surplus, what are people *supposed* to do?”

        Well the old plan was to live a life of epicurean leisure filled with artistic and intellectual pursuits.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Well, that sure has been forgotten about. Now it’s sweatshops, rent-seeking, gig economy, on-demand part-part-time work, etc etc etc, but hey, there are some gee whiz TED talks to listen to from our betters!

    • paul.c.klos

      Umm you do realize you can’t just put generic seed A in generic place B – right.

      There is however reason to be a bit concerned about imports. Mostly with fresh fruits and vegetables since handling is often poorly regulated abroad and thanks to the Republicans – inspections of imports keep dropping as the FDA and USDA face continued budget cutting pressure (and that goes for the domestic side as well).

      Small organic local farms cant really help until the larger US population is willing to not always expect to have say blueberries in the store, but instead be happy with moving on to the regional and seasonal alternatives when fruit is out of season.

      ” Obviously we all hate Big Ag and wish all our food could come from small organic farms”

      Define Big Ag in your view please while small organic farming is a nice niche if you are close to a big city its not going to get you an inexpensive loaf of bread.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        man, I sure wish I had written

        but that ain’t gonna happen at affordable prices,

        right after that so I wouldn’t be misread. Live and learn.

      • DrDick

        Here in Montana, organic farming is rather more a small time enterprise (though we have a fair bit of that as well for local markets). My Senator, Jon Tester, is an organic farmer with 1,800 acres and former governor Brian Schweitzer also farms a sizeable operation. Here it is definitely niche marketing to maximize the rather meager returns.

    • BigHank53

      a rich country might grow less and less of its own food and buy it from poorer countries

      There are three assumptions here:

      1. The rich country will always have enough money to buy that food.
      2. The poor country will always have enough food to sell.
      3. Reliable transport for such food will always exist.

      Those aren’t laws of nature. They are human achievements and subject to the whims of nature, fate, and foolishness. We know climate change is going to do some nasty stuff to us. No need to invite extra trouble.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        Whut.

        • njorl

          In the US, urbanization frequently occurred near prime agricultural land due to pioneering patterns. As the urban areas sprawl, they tend to convert excellent agricultural land into suburbs. This is an economically irreversible process.
          While it may be feasible to import cheap food now, it might not always be the case. It would be wise to protect prime agricultural land now. The most economical way of protecting agricultural land is to keep it as a functioning farm, even if it needs to be subsidized in some way.

          • keta

            Exactly. Also…

            Not just in the US. And not just urbanization of agricultural land, but also the “urbanization” of aquaculture zones.

            Humans continue to be really really stupid about not shitting where we eat.

    • NonyNony

      To be pragmatic: A reliance on imports for your food supply can be a severe national security concern.

      To be moralistic: North America is prime land and climate for growing food. To the degree that we are squandering that land to not provide for ourselves – let alone to not be a net exporter of food to the rest of the world – we are acting immorally. Instead of sprawling our cities onto former farmland we should be building our cities upwards and reclaiming ex-urbs and suburbs for food production.

      Of course all of that would require re-jiggering our subsidy regimes to be sane and make it a better deal for young people to go into farming – and for existing farms to stay farms instead of selling their land off to developers to build subdivisions. Farming – even agribusiness farming – is one of the few business areas where socalizing the costs isn’t done nearly enough considering the benefits that it has for society as a whole.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        Well that escalated quickly. Now we’re not just helping young people risk their life savings to start small businesses in a consolidating industry in small towns, we’re addressing a Serious National Security Concern.

        • NonyNony

          I only said that it can be a national security concern. Not that it is now, or even that it’s the most important one.

          Second of all – I would have thought that where I was actually escalating things was with the moral problems of our land use (lack of) policies in this country. The national security concerns are just a bit of pragmatism on my part – a nation that can’t feed itself is ripe for hostile nations to mess with it – but the morality of the situation is the one that I find disgusting. We could easily be growing food for most of the world as well as ourselves, but instead we’re going to build some more strip malls that will sit empty because the developer got a great tax break but nobody actually needed it. It’s disgusting.

          • ajay

            The national security concerns are just a bit of pragmatism on my part – a nation that can’t feed itself is ripe for hostile nations to mess with it

            This is ludicrous. Really, it is. If you were a Brit it would be less ludicrous, because, you know, U-boats, island nation, recent history. But you’re American. Do you fear someone closing off the Canadian border?

            • NonyNony

              Right now? No. Which is why I said “can be” not “is”. The world is a chaotic place, so in the future who knows? Also Canada certainly can’t provide enough food to feed us – where are they importing from to sell through to us and who is messing with us that way? But I will concede that at this point in history with the way our alliances are now and with the way the world stage is currently configured, the security threat from importing food is low even if we imported every single scrap of food we ate from other countries.

              However I’m quite impressed that everyone has latched onto that tiny theoretical throwaway bit and not said anything at all about the moral question that I thought was actually the heart of my objection. I guess that it’s just not controversial that our current food production and land use policies in this country are highly immoral and nobody wants to defend them.

              • ajay

                I guess that it’s just not controversial that our current food production and land use policies in this country are highly immoral and nobody wants to defend them.

                Or just that it’s lunatic to argue that a square mile of houses for people to live in and raise their families in is somehow disgustingly immoral compared to a square mile of turnips.

                • aidian

                  “it’s lunatic to argue that a square mile of houses for people to live in and raise their families in is somehow disgustingly immoral compared to a square mile of turnips.”

                  There’s a pretty good argument to be made that, in a world where people are starving, a square mile of grossly inefficient housing — like say a bunch of 2500+ sq ft split level ranch houses on large lots in auto-dependent suburban/exurban subdivisions is immoral if the other option is some turnips and some less wasteful housing.

            • njorl

              It’s as crazy as the world’s largest oil producer facing a crippling oil shortage. Guess what nation that happened to.

      • paul.c.klos

        Well the other point outside truck farming aimed at cites or large towns you often have to accept day to day life to be well not uber exciting – in fairly isolated small towns Unless you really into out door stuff w/o a long drive.

        Oh and don’t forget poor to no cell activity and thin bandwidth on your high speed access.

        • NonyNony

          My day-to-day life is not super exciting, and I live in a city.

          But at least the schools that my kid goes to are good. Which is not something that can be said for most rural school systems these days (at least here in Ohio).

      • Dagmar

        NonyNony is right about farming and national security. The legislation that provides economic support for farming, i.e., the farm program, is generally called the Food Security Act. It is a longheld position of Congress that the nation’s security would be put at risk if sufficient food production was not within U.S. borders. Similarly, the Nazi Germany concept of lebensraum was based on de-populating major European food producing areas,such as the Ukraine,and re-populating with Aryan German farmers, so that Germany would not have to import food.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          All of which has zero to do with whether we should be encouraging individuals to try farming as a small business.

    • Brett

      Normally I’m pretty supportive of trade and imports, but when it comes to food I think we need to ensure our ability to feed ourselves from domestic production if necessary. The food trade system has an unfortunate tendency to clamp down in periods of bad harvests, as food exporting countries reduce exports (remember the food riots in 2008?).

      That doesn’t mean you should support all agricultural commodities, and we definitely should be encouraging diversification, multi-crop planting instead of mono-crop planting, etc. In fact, doing so would probably help revitalize agriculture in the US – right now farmers do mono-crop planting because the agricultural laws actually discourage diversification (you can lose your corn subsidies if you grow vegetables instead, and so forth IIRC).

    • Redwood Rhiadra

      ” wish all our food could come from small organic farms, but that ain’t gonna happen at affordable prices,”

      It also won’t happen with an acceptable environmental impact. “Organic” farming gets 50-75% of the yield of regular farms – meaning you have to clear up to twice as much land to feed the same number of people – which is quite damaging to the local ecosystem.

      • sonamib

        “Organic” farming gets 50-75% of the yield of regular farms

        Do you have a cite for that? Because the two first meta-anelyses that I’ve found by googling “organic farm crop yield” found a ~20% yield gap.

        Of course, losing 20% of crops isn’t good, but the 2014 study says that organic crop yields might be be underestimated and that there are ways to reduce this yield gap :

        The researchers pointed out that the available studies comparing farming methods were often biased in favor of conventional agriculture, so this estimate of the yield gap is likely overestimated. They also found that taking into account methods that optimize the productivity of organic agriculture could minimize the yield gap. They specifically highlighted two agricultural practices, multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field) and crop rotation, that would substantially reduce the organic-to-conventional yield gap to 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

        The yields also depended upon the type of crop grown, the researchers found. There were no significant differences between organic and conventional yield gaps for leguminous crops, such as beans, peas and lentils, for instance.

        The other study disagrees, and says that they might have overestimated the yield of organic farms :

        We discuss our findings in the context of the literature on this subject and address the issue of upscaling our results to higher system levels. Our analysis was at field and crop level. We hypothesize that due to challenges in the maintenance of nutrient availability in organic systems at crop rotation, farm and regional level, the average yield gap between conventional and organic systems may be larger than 20% at higher system levels. This relates in particular to the role of legumes in the rotation and the farming system, and to the availability of (organic) manure at the farm and regional levels. Future research should therefore focus on assessing the relative performance of both types of agriculture at higher system levels, i.e. the farm, regional and global system levels, and should in that context pay particular attention to nutrient availability in both organic and conventional agriculture.

        tl;dr : Organic farms crop yields are on average 20% lower than in conventional farms. Further studies are needed to see if this 20% number holds up.

        So, I don’t think organic farms are ready to replace regular farms right now, but it’s fine to let a few small farms experiment and tinker with the “organic” methods. They might plausibly find a way to have the same or almost the same crop yields as conventional farming, while having a lower environmental toll.

  • CrunchyFrog

    I’ve known a few wealthier farmers – it depends a lot on the size of the farm and on access to cheap water. One thing of importance to them is getting an Agricultural MBA in their employ. The big family farms (as opposed to the corporate megafarms) also rely on intelligent financial management to sort through all of the loans and subsidies available as well as the various finance programs from the big farm suppliers, like Monsanto. Throw in a lot of weather analysis under the heading of risk management and it’s very complicated business indeed.

  • Hard to see how anyone can compete with factory farming.

    • rea

      Most factories are grown in China these days.

  • I think Eric should solicit a guest post from some guy in iowa.

    • Pseudonym

      jim, perhaps?

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        ach no wonder my ears are burning

        I try to avoid getting very far into these kinds of things- I read a lot of comments I think are severely wrong-headed but 1) I don’t have any interest in filling up a thread with my responses and 2) I have *very* mixed feelings about where agriculture is these days- I don’t have any love for industrial ag, which at this point is all about concentration of wealth, and I *also* think organic and other niche farming is basically a crock that caters to white people with money to burn

        the average age of 58 is a bit deceptive- it includes a lot of people who are playing out the string as long as their health holds up. The farms that are aggressively growing may well have a primary owner of that age too but there are usually at least one and most times several members of the next generation actively involved in management. It isn’t that farming is going away or that it will become an investor-driven proposition it’s that the next round of consolidation of land ownership is going to transfer almost all of the land into a relatively small number of families. Which is kind of a bad thing for me personally and some of my friends and neighbors who’d like to keep their farms going but whether it is in general I don’t know

        • jdkbrown

          Oh, please, please offer up a guest post on these issues! (And please, please, LGM: accept!)

          I’d love to be better informed. I’m mostly a lurker, so it won’t stop me from leaving severely wrongheaded comments, but it might forestall some severely wrongheaded thoughts. And really, for those of us who value Erik’s posts on the intersections of labor and environmental issues, it would be a treat.

        • DrDick

          Have to agree and it is simply the continuation of a trend going back at least a century. Here in Montana, niche farming is an important strategy for “small farmers” (anyone with less than 2,000 acres), given the small margins in this arid environment.

        • N__B

          Jim –

          I agree with jdkbrown. You’re like Gregor – a regular commenter who has specialized knowledge that is of interest to the community.

          Me, I’m waiting for the moment when structural analysis will add to the convo. I think my 15 minutes were probably up around December 1, 2001.

          • Jordan

            But the left talks about structural analysis of things all the time!

            /I’ll show myself out.

  • Joe

    Last week a post about how y’all would like to hear from lurkers. Then a post about farming. Y’all are so sweet!

    We’re heading towards a bipolar food-production system. One pole will use robot tractors, surveillance drones (hurrah multi-spectral imaging!) and precision agriculture based on one-meter scale soil responses to make all the calories we need.

    The other pole is the vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables are going local. As population density increases in the big cities, there are lots of young people moving into the gaps that are opening up in exurbia. The guys behind the tables at the farmer’s market are nowhere near my age.

    These are both good things, because with what’s happening to their climate it’s not obvious how California stays in the game.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      can’t speak to the produce, but yeah, on the grain production end it is amazing just how precision ag has changed the game- with gps mapping and variable rate spreading we can pinpoint apply the right kind of fertilizers in the right places where we used to just shovel the stuff onto the field any old way

    • twbb

      “The guys behind the tables at the farmer’s market are nowhere near my age.”

      Honest question: do they seem like the kind of people who are going to actually stick with it? Or were they into artisanal butchering last year and artisinal brewing the year before and professional ukulele playing the year before that, etc. etc.?

      • Joe

        Some will drop out, but many will stick with it. The farmers in their twenties don’t hugely outnumber those in their thirties and forties.

  • In my little corner of Wisconsin, there are some family farms left, including the one run by my uncle and his son. They both work, my uncle part time, and my cousin full time. On top of that they farm what used to be a 300 acre farm, and now might be twice that spread across five or ten miles of south central Wisconsin. (they’ve been buying land as neighboring small fields become available) The small fields they’ve been buying have been relatively cheap due to irregular and or uneven topography, the most recent one was small to begin with, and was divided by an interstate decades ago, and when the owner died with tremendous health care debt (thanks to the republican legislature’s gutting of Badger care and other programs designed to pay for end of life care) the property was auctioned. The point is, they know they have to grow to stay competitive, so even family farms have to become agribusinesses to stay in business. It seems like the only farms that aren’t concerned with getting more land are the hobby farms.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Doesn’t a 58 y/o farmer have only three more decades of farming ahead of him?

    • DrDick

      More like a couple of decades. My grandfather “retired” at 78.

  • ajay

    Yes, that article has some really, really shaky reasoning in it, much of which has been picked up above. Things like this

    “The USDA says that we need to inspire 100,000 new farmers over the next decade or we are going to get more consolidation and more imports from overseas,” says Gibson.

    in particular. There’s no obvious reason why fewer farmers should mean less food produced; that’s a function of the amount of farmland, not the number of farmers.

    Of course most farmers are old – isn’t it traditional to acquire a farm by inheriting it? Or to buy it once you retire (hence “buying the farm” as a euphemism for death)?


    From the source cited in the linked article: “3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million acres “. 1.5 acres per farmer??

    Farmer in this case means “farm operator”. The USDA “collected data on up to three operators per farm” – a principal operator and two others. Most of the principal operators (52%) are not full-time farmers – they get most of their income from other sources – and even fewer of the others are farmers first and foremost. So the typical American farmer is not, actually, a farmer. He is a something-else who also happens to have a farm.

    I’m sure that the National Young Farmers’ Coalition’s members would benefit a great deal from debt forgiveness. But a cynic might question whether targeting debt forgiveness on a group of prosperous white guys with hundreds of thousands of dollars of working capital is exactly the best idea.

    • DrDick

      There’s no obvious reason why fewer farmers should mean less food produced; that’s a function of the amount of farmland, not the number of farmers.

      There are a lot of other reasons, however, to be concerned about increased consolidation in agriculture, including crop biodiversity, monopoly pricing, etc.

      • ajay

        There are a lot of other reasons, however, to be concerned about increased consolidation in agriculture, including crop biodiversity, monopoly pricing, etc.

        We’re a long way from needing to worry about monopoly pricing. What we have, really, is monopsony (or oligopsony) pricing by the large supermarket chains.

        • DrDick

          And by various other middle men, who get the vast majority of the profits from agricultural produce.

    • Anonymous Troll

      “Of course most farmers are old – isn’t it traditional to acquire a farm by inheriting it? Or to buy it once you retire (hence “buying the farm” as a euphemism for death)?”

      Im way too lazy to do the research but i think you’re wrong. I think that back in the thirties farm mortgages were required to have credit life insurance, so when the farmer/debtor died, the insurance paid off the mortgage and bought the farm.

      “So the typical American farmer is not, actually, a farmer. He is a something-else who also happens to have a farm.”

      Right. Odd definition of farmer. It looks way over inclusive.

      • ajay

        Interesting about the mortgages – I didn’t know that.

        On your other point, I wonder what these figures would look like if they were limited to professional farmers? As in, what we all think of when we say “farmer” – someone whose main or only source of income is agriculture.

        • Peterr

          For many farm families, having at least some income from beyond the farm is a critical form of insurance. If When a drought hits, that family is going to need the income from the spouse who not only does the bookkeeping for the farm but also part time for the local furniture store in town on the side.

          For most farm families with non-farm income that I know, it’s about ensuring survival, not something they do because farming is a hobby to them.

          • ajay

            But this is not at family level. The USDA (read the link) looked at “up to three operators per farm”. Most of the farms were family businesses. Principal operator was generally the husband, secondary operator was generally the wife. And it was very common for the wife to make most of her income from something other than farming – that’s what 63% of them do.

            But it’s also what 52% of the principal operators, the husbands, do. And this is not just making a bit extra in hard times: it’s making the majority of your money from it, routinely. Most US farmers, as the USDA defines them, routinely make most of their income from things other than farming.

    • Peterr

      There’s no obvious reason why fewer farmers should mean less food produced; that’s a function of the amount of farmland, not the number of farmers.

      Oh, good grief.

      That land ain’t gonna grow that food all by itself.

      Of course most farmers are old – isn’t it traditional to acquire a farm by inheriting it? Or to buy it once you retire (hence “buying the farm” as a euphemism for death)?

      Your “of course” made me laugh out loud. Ever heard of the Future Farmers of America? These teens are looking to become farmers in their 20s, not their 60s. They may not own the farm until much later, but make no mistake: many of them will be farming the land well before then.

      As Anonymous Troll says above, “buying the farm” means you died and the family could use the insurance to pay off the loans. But this isn’t a now-long-gone phenomenon of the 1930s — see the farm crisis of the 1980s, as well as the effects of the 2009 Lesser Depression on farms.

      But a cynic might question whether targeting debt forgiveness on a group of prosperous white guys with hundreds of thousands of dollars of working capital is exactly the best idea.

      You must hang out with a much different class of farmers than I do, or have little clue about how a farm actually works. Yeah, if Old MacDonald has a new combine, that’s about $500,000 in working capital. But the key word is “working” – you can’t run a corn farm without one, either renting or owning. You can’t say “well, I’ll sell the left front wheel so I can make the payment on the loan.” Oh, and that working capital depreciates every year . . .

      Are there prosperous farmers? Yes. Is it a sure path for economic success? If that’s what you think, I have some fine land I’d like to sell you.

      • ajay

        Ever heard of the Future Farmers of America? These teens are looking to become farmers in their 20s, not their 60s. They may not own the farm until much later, but make no mistake: many of them will be farming the land well before then.

        Yes, but they don’t count as “farmers” under the definition used. The USDA is talking about “principal operators” – not just “people who work on the land”. If it was the latter, we’d be talking about a bigger, younger (and much more Mexican) group. And there’s also the point that most of the people included in this survey are not really farmers: as I said (though you may not have read down that far) they are something-elses who also happen to own a farm.

        You must hang out with a much different class of farmers than I do, or have little clue about how a farm actually works. Yeah, if Old MacDonald has a new combine, that’s about $500,000 in working capital. But the key word is “working” – you can’t run a corn farm without one, either renting or owning. You can’t say “well, I’ll sell the left front wheel so I can make the payment on the loan.” Oh, and that working capital depreciates every year …

        All the same: if you own a business with hundreds of thousands of dollars of working capital, then that puts you very high up the ladder in wealth terms. Most 25-year-old Americans do not own half a million dollars worth of anything, whether or not they need it for their work! Their average net worth is $1,700!

        • Yankee

          Yet the disposable income of these people is middle-class at best. This combination of huge capital and thin margins, plus extreme sensitivity to marginally predictable weather makes it inevitable that they will be whipsawed by the financial class and in the end (if there actually is a dollar to be made) eaten alive by the corprats.

      • DrDick

        Indeed. Even relatively large private operators tend to be land rich and cash poor, as all their money is tied up in land and capital equipment. Only corporate farms make anyone rich.

  • mzrad

    On 1.5 acres of land worked with hand tools, JM Fortier with his wife Maude-Heléne and two staff have been making $150,000/year growing vegetables for their local Quebec farmers markets and a CSA. More loans aren’t the answer to farmer debt: learning to farm efficiently and effectively without the limitations of tractors (e.g., compulsory row width, soil compaction, fossil-fuel dependent, deep debt) is an exciting and positive way forward for new farmers. No indentured servitude with super-smart garden tools. They’ve written a book called _The Market Gardener_ and have a _Market Gardener Toolkit_ documentary film to share the knowledge. BTW, the Fortier family only farms 9 months of the year due to seasonal constraints in Quebec and they enjoy going on bike rides and going on vacation in those dormant months. Their success can be replicated: let’s go!

    • ajay

      On 1.5 acres of land worked with hand tools, JM Fortier with his wife Maude-Heléne and two staff have been making $150,000/year growing vegetables

      Full-time outdoor stoop labour for $37,500 a year ($150,000/4) gross income, before production costs, doesn’t exactly sound like a dream come true.

    • Nang Mai

      A little known fact is that the smaller the farm, the more productive it tends to be because small farms avoid monoculture.

      This guy explains why better than I can:
      https://www.organicconsumers.org/old_articles/Organic/smallfarmsbetter.php

  • Nang Mai

    The US has between 40-60 years of soil left thanks to erosion and depletion issues. What is needed are farmers who understand how to tend soil. Those older guys with huge land holdings who use tons of agri-chemicals and other destructive practices are squandering a non-renewable resource.

    Whoever wrote that seems unaware that there a great many young people are terrified by that prospect and have gotten involved in alternative farming systems. In my city permaculture is popular. I know of two public food foraging parks nearby. We also have community cooperative farms that sell their organic produce at farmers’ markets. My neighborhood has a group that has been transforming backyards into spaces that grow food instead. We also have formal allotment gardens. Austin’s Sustainable Food Center has done an outstanding job helping people re-think outdated ideas of farming and food production. And while some older people are participating in these projects the majority of participants are new families.

    • paul.c.klos

      “The US has between 40-60 years of soil left thanks to erosion and depletion issues.”

      That is a nonsensical figure. It would require the US to all one climate with one type of soil all under one type of agriculture with one crop.

      “Those older guys with huge land holdings”

      OK as soon as you convince 50% of the population to back to the farm maybe we talk farm size.

      “tons of agri-chemicals and other destructive practices ”

      see above when rally half the country to want to spend the hoeing even a 50 acre plot and i dunno how your going to deal with fungus, and insects but good luck with that.

      “other destructive practices are squandering a non-renewable resource. ”

      Which ones?

      You grow sufficient grain to make bread?
      You never need to go to the store?

  • ajay

    Another very odd bit:

    From the source cited in the linked article: “3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million acres “. 1.5 acres per farmer??

    Especially since, according to the USDA itself:

    The United States has a total land area of nearly 2.3 billion acres. Major uses in 2002 were forest-use land, 651 million acres (28.8 percent); grassland pasture and range land, 587 million acres (25.9 percent); cropland, 442 million acres (19.5 percent); special uses (primarily parks and wildlife areas), 297 million acres (13.1 percent); miscellaneous other uses, 228 million acres (10.1 percent); and urban land, 60 million acres (2.6 percent).

    In fact the USDA census found that 3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million farms, not 2.1 million acres. Then they wrote up their own census wrong.

    • ajay

      None of you spotted it? Not with all your sympathy for farmers, your deep understanding of the American farming business – none of you thought “hang on a minute, 2.1 million acres? That’s tiny, that’s two Rhode Islands. That can’t possibly be right.”

      • that’s two Rhode Islands. That can’t possibly be right.

        Even one Rhode Island can’t possibly be right; eppur si muove.

      • Anonymous Troll

        Thank you.

        No. I didn’t figure out why the statement was absurd, or where the error was. Im too lazy or too dumb, so I’m glad you figured it out.

      • Pseudonym

        I don’t claim to have any understanding of the American farming business, but I assumed it was a typo for “farms” because 2/3 of an acre per farmer seemed absurd.

      • Jackov

        Anyone who followed the linked saw

        How Many Farmers?
        In 2012, 3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million farms

        one paragraph below.

        If they scrolled all the way through they found

        Snapshot of U.S. Farmers, 2012
        The majority of the nation’s 2.1 million farms are small in terms of sales; 75 percent sold less than $50,000 in agricultural products in 2012 and 57 percent had sales less than $10,000

        Why they passed on the opportunity to trumpet their ability to read is currently unknown.

  • Bill in Section 147

    Conceptually not against it. As a matter of National concern, having locally available farm goods that require minimal transport would be prudent. It would be nice if the areas which would best improve the quality of agricultural product and reduce negative impacts were identified and we paid/subsidized agricultual education programs and farmers to move to those zones and farm.

    I certainly do not want to pay/subsidize someone to be a large-scale cotton farmer in Southern California or to grow feed corn in Iowa.

    I worry that any government program which does not explicitly forbid profit making third-parties from stealing is at risk. If the subsidy or loan forgiveness only applied to students at publicly controlled colleges, universities, and junior colleges I would be more comfortable. If this bill passes without protecting against it, we will have Liberty Agriculture and Technical On-Line School signing up people to pay themselves for not educating them.

  • pianomover

    I think one should calculate the age of the farm worker and not the age of the farm owner. Here in California it would be a rare sight to see a farm owner actually working their land.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Are they counting grow ups in warehouses? Mexican immigrants on national forest land? Legal farmers in Humboldt County?

    • aidian

      There won’t be many legal farmers in Humboldt County soon. Small scale, family growers — true subsistence farmers, the sort that built my county, made it a special place, and kept the counterculture alive while also providing an actual economic base after American greed destroyed the timber and fishing industries — are already being forced out at a quick rate.

      With marijuana wholesaling for 20% of what it did 20 years ago (without counting inflation) we’re already seeing consolidation and the growth of industrial scale agri-business in the weed trade. The good news is that’s pushing out some of the speculators and pseudo organized crime operations. The bad news is it’s also leaving lot of middle aged people unemployed with no other industry available to employ them. What exactly does one do if your only work history is growing weed? Tough to put on a resume even if there was anywhere to send that resume to.

      In the short term we have that consolidation and the rise of fewer bigger growers — still not midwest sized agribiz yet, but headed there — with fewer people making a living off more weed. In the longer term, Humboldt won’t even have that industry, because there’s absolutely no reason to farm there.

      The coastal plain with decent soil doesn’t get enough sun to be ideal. The mountains have lousy soil. And the whole region has absolutely terrible transportation connections with the rest of the country. The harbor’s too shallow for real shipping, efforts to get a rail link with the bay area have gone nowhere despite decades of (some illusion of) effort and plans, and the road links are either six hours of hellish Highway 101 to the bay or four hours of even worse 299 to the Central Valley (an epically terrible road). They also wash out pretty routinely. The same remoteness — the redwood curtain — that protected us for years, that allowed us to grow the best weed in the world, will ensure that we don’t enjoy the benefits of legal agricultural industry.

      Instead, it’ll be the same scumbags who currently exploit massive subsidies and illegal immigrant labor to get rich off produce who will likely be the winners of the legal weed business. These are the same scumbags who already steal most of our water (which helped destroy the fishing industry) and likely some of the same capitalist class who profited off the overharvesting of the redwood forests (which destroyed the timber industry). Now they’ll take the last industry we’ve got.

      Not that Im bitter about how American capitalism has found a way to make sure that no matter how hard my people work they’ll never have a chance.

      So enjoy your cheap legal weed, folks.

      Maybe I can get a grant to retrain all those growers for producing poppies and making heroin from it. Best shot many of them have to avoid poverty.

      • ajay

        The bad news is it’s also leaving lot of middle aged people unemployed with no other industry available to employ them. What exactly does one do if your only work history is growing weed?

        WILL NO ONE THINK OF THE DRUG DEALERS?

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