While Paul McCartney ponders, “will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” Steve wonders who will farm when 62% of U.S. farmers are reaching retirement age. In the season finale, Steve examines the barriers beginning farmers must overcome as well as the vast job opportunities available in agriculture today.
In the song, McCartney ponders a question about what surely seemed like his distant future with the line: “will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” There have been many covers of this song including one by John Lennon’s son Julian in 2008 . As I heard that song on the radio as a kid, the idea that I would someday be that old was certainly quite an abstraction, but as it said in the line from a great 70s song, “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band: “time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the future,” and I now find myself at that iconic age of 64 – though fortunately still needed and fed.
But to be honest, I do have some concerns about that question, “will you still feed me?” I’m not actually as worried about whether we can continue to innovate enough to “feed the world,” but my foremost concern is about who will be doing that as you and I and everyone else “keep slippin” into that future. That’s the issue we will try to unpack on today’s POPagriculture podcast.
Today, particularly in affluent societies like ours, only a small subset of the population is required to do the actual farming needed to feed the rest of us. We recently got to see a profile of that small part of our society because in April of this year, the USDA published the 2017 Census of Agriculture - a detailed survey that is completed every five years. It includes key data that speaks to the question of who it is that will be feeding us.
As of 2017, there were 3.4 million total agricultural “producers” in the U.S. (that means people who are directly involved in making decisions on farms). 1.23 million of those were female – a number that is 27 percent higher than in 2012 - but much of that change was probably because the survey broadened the definition from beyond the “primary” producer from earlier years. As part of a theme that is consistent with earlier surveys, the age distribution of those producers is decidedly weighted towards older people. The average age of the producers in 2017 was 57.5 years, and that fits the somewhat concerning, long-term trend that our farmers are getting older.
Over the past 15 years, the proportion of young farmers (say under 35), has stayed virtually constant at just under 10 percent. The proportion of “middle aged” farmers has dropped steadily from 47 percent to 30 percent. It is the “55 and over” segment of farm operators that has increased 17 percent, rising from 45 percent in 2002 to 62 percent in 2017.
The fastest growing age group over that time period has been those who can now talk about “when I’m sixty-four” from personal experience – the 28 percent of farmers who were between 65 to 74 in 2017. The sort of scary thing is that the “seventy-five and older” group went from 7.7 percent to 11.7 percent of farmers in that same time frame. The song “Old McDonald” is sounding pretty accurate.
Now, we all know seniors who have plenty of good years to contribute long past the traditional “retirement age” of 65. I certainly hope to keep going for many more years. But the trends emphasized by this latest census should certainly give us pause to consider that “who” question about feeding not just those of us who live in the U.S., but the hundreds of millions of others around the world who also depend, at least in part, on the amazing productivity of U.S. farms.
There is an ongoing surge of retirements from the ag-technology sector that further pushes the “who” question. We “baby boomers” (who grew up listening to the Beatles) are now reaching potential retirement age, and some have the option of accepting exit packages due to the most recent round of consolidation in the ag-technology business sector. What this means is that we are experiencing a significant loss of knowledge and experience among those who have been working on the innovations needed to support farmers as they navigate the serious and ever-shifting challenges of farming. I’ve watched many of my long-term colleagues in agricultural science companies take well-earned retirement packages, and there are similar trends in public research institutions. There are lots of folks who share my concerns about the “who will be there to assist those who will be feeding us.” This could have a real impact during my children and grandchildren’s lifetimes. Add to this the recent trend that fewer and fewer college students are pursuing ag-related degree programs like agronomy, plant science, or pest-related disciplines like entomology, plant pathology, nematology or weed science. A declining scientific experience base with fewer new entrants certainly represents a challenge for agriculture overall.
This actually represents a good career opportunity for young people today. Many ag-technology companies have been hiring new employees with degrees from non-ag related fields within the range of biology and environmental sciences and then bring them up to speed on farming through on-the job training. I was pleased to learn that several such organizations ask these new hires to listen to the POPagriculture podcast library to help supplement their background.
As I discussed in an earlier podcast titled, “Farm is a Verb,” the incredibly diverse business of farming shares common themes of extraordinary financial risk driven by dynamic variables like weather, pests, and prices - all compounded by the minimal market leverage of individual producers. This year we have been hearing a lot about how farmers are being seriously affected by extreme climate events and by being used as pawns in skirmishes related to international trade. But farming hasn’t just recently become a difficult enterprise, so it is no wonder that many historic farming families have accepted or even encouraged their kids to pursue other types of careers.
Ironically, the fact that farmers have been able to feed more people over time has allowed them to become a sort of obscure “other” group in our society that often ends up being inaccurately and unfairly demonized in our public discourse. In an earlier podcast titled “Big Little Lies”, and throughout my blogging “career,” I’ve tried to counteract the abundant disinformation about the real people who make up the small subset of our population still farming. It’s hard to know how much that negativity feeds into the lack of young people trying to enter farming or pursuing farming related careers, but farmers feeling themselves as under attack or misunderstood isn’t a new phenomenon. At a rest stop along California’s US-101 corridor in the still very agricultural Central Coast, there is a plaque that really struck me. It has a line from the “Farmers Alliance Songbook” from the 1890s that goes: “It would put them to the test, if the farmer took a rest, then they’d know that it’s the farmer feeds them all.” That was from a time when more than 40 percent of the population still farmed.
When I was in high school in the early 1970s in the Denver suburbs, I saw a bumper sticker that made quite an impression on me. It said, “Don’t complain about farmers with your mouth full.” That was a time when around 8 percent of our society still farmed.
There is one more problematic trend that has to do with this “who will feed us?” question. Much of the shift to the kinds of modern farming that requires fewer farmers has been enabled by technology ranging from mechanization to efficient means of pest control. But there are still some key tasks that require manual, in-the field labor. Jobs like hand weeding, pruning or hand harvesting are not what most Americans want to do or imagine as something for their children to do when they grow up. Honestly, most of us wouldn’t have the stamina to do it.
As a part of my recent consulting work, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in strawberry fields doing evaluations on experimental plots. There are often picking crews nearby doing the delicate and strenuous job of gathering that delicious fruit. I have observed them out in the rows, stooping to select just the ripe berries, gently placing them in a tray of the plastic “clamshell” containers that end up in our stores. They carry the full trays over to a collection spot on the edge of the field where they are weighed and prepped for transport. Many of the pickers then sprint back to the part of the field still to be picked because they are paid based on the number of pounds they pick in a day. They can actually do pretty well on that basis, often better than at an hourly rate even with recent increases that have been mandated by the California legislature. It is hard work with long hours, but the farmers in the strawberry industry and many others like table grapes or certain vegetables are finding it harder and harder to find people willing and able to do this kind of labor. There are ongoing efforts to find ways to eliminate the hardest kinds of hand labor and someday we may have advanced robots that can even do something like pick strawberries. That may also be a future solution to something like the stressful hand weeding that persists in organic farming because they can’t use herbicides. There is a rather sobering interview with my predecessor at CropLife Foundation about that topic on YouTube.
Most other developed countries have more viable “guest worker” programs to fulfill this kind of labor need without asking people to live here “under the radar”. Without digressing into politics, our country’s system isn’t good for either farmers or laborers, and which may ultimately come around to bite consumers. We will never adequately address this aspect of the “who” question about our food supply without some much more enlightened approach to the remaining hand labor needs on farms.
So, are there reasons for hope or at least good ideas about the future of who will feed us? I’d say there are some.
Younger Americans can certainly become interested in farming for agriculture-related careers. There are organizations that are all about generating that kind of interest and providing support along those lines such as Agriculture Future of America and Future Farmers of America. Last year we posted a POPagriculture segment where I interviewed one such “Future Farmer” name Zach Jacobs. I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a few other young people pursuing similar paths and their enthusiasm is encouraging. I know some long-term ag experts who have developed undergraduate classes designed to provide the “big picture” about what agriculture is really about and then offer those as options at colleges that don’t have degree programs like those at Land Grant universities. They report a positive reception from their students with no previous farming background and find that many end up pursuing graduate programs in a farming-related field.
Another draw for younger people has been the ever-increasing role of technology in farming today involving the employment of “big data,” remote imaging, and other geospatial data in the development of “Precision Farming” methods. In some cases, this has been a driver for attracting the next generation in long-term farming families and in other cases from those with no family ag history at all.
Beyond “high tech” aspects of modern farming, there are some other major themes that align with the basic priorities for those who might consider being part of a new generation of farmers. Those who will pass their “64” milestone towards the middle of this century or beyond are legitimately motivated to take action around the threats associated of climate change. That can be a motivator to pursue a farming career because agriculture has an important role to play in greenhouse gas dynamics by employing practices such as minimal tillage, cover cropping or prairie strips serving as ways to sequester large amounts of carbon in agricultural soils. Involvement in “rational intensification” of farming on existing land is also a way farmers can help prevent the substantial carbon re-emissions that happens if existing grassland or forest has to be converted to farming to meet increasing global demand.
One trend that could help motivate a new generation of farmers is the effort to define what sustainable agriculture really means using quantifiable “outcome” metrics. To the extent that this can guide the future of crop production towards science-driven rather than marketing-driven goals, it could attract those who really want to make a difference.
If we really want to enable a next generation of farmers, there must be some new paradigms when it comes to access to land, capital and equipment. In the earlier podcast titled, “You can’t buy the farm, but you can rent it,” we talked about how the nature of property leases needs to be updated to encourage the sustainable farming practices that are logically attractive to a generation wanting to play a positive role in the response to climate change threats. Beginning farmers need a support network in terms of expertise, but also in terms of access to capital, operating loans and crop insurance.
So, ensuring that we will continue to have the people with the passion, training and innovation-support to keep feeding us may sound like a tall order, but there is hope if we take the challenges seriously.