January 18, 2018

Who Will Run the Future Farms?

Laura Genello

Laura Genello

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Do a Google image search for the future of farming, and you’ll find designs for towering vertical farms, aquaponics greenhouses, crop-monitoring drones and harvesting robots. The images are a testament to human creativity. But what’s often missing from the discussion of the future of agriculture is an answer to the question of who will run these future farms.

In many developed countries, young people from farming families continue to leave the farm, and older farmers find themselves without a successor. In both the US.and the Netherlands, there is a shortage of young farmers. Across the US only 5.7 percent of farmers are under the age of 35, and in the Netherlands that percentage is only 3.9. Beginning farmers, particularly those who do not come from farming families, face steep challenges accessing land, capital, knowledge and credit. So what happens to farms without a successor? Farmland will disappear to development, there will be consolidation within the farm industry, or new farmers will step in to take their place. In fact, trends in both countries show a steady decline in the number of farms, due to both consolidation and development pressure. In the Netherlands, an average of 22 farms were lost each day in 2016.

Despite these barriers, however, there’s evidence that a growing number of people from non-agricultural backgrounds want to be farmers and are giving up a paycheck to work the soil. The Washington Post recently ran a piece on this very trend, based on a survey conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Ten years ago, I also chose to farm after university, and as I’ve been studying in the Netherlands and meeting beginning farmers here, I’ve noticed that many of the issues and values they express echo perspectives I’ve heard from farmer friends in the US. Many have given up secure careers to work outdoors, in the sun and the rain, among animals and plants. Often they are motivated by values of living sustainably, building community and positively influencing their corner of the world. One woman described her decision to start farming as a way to answer the question at the heart of her university studies:

“I started to get more interested in farming as an answer to the question I had about how we can feed the world. And when I was living abroad and speaking to farmers in Indonesia as well, I really started to grasp that the answer is not more food but it’s things like food sovereignty, which is more a whole perspective.”[1]

I’ve been inspired by the drive, creativity and sense of purpose of all of the beginning farmers I have encountered. One was a former physical therapist who will begin plantings this year for a permaculture-inspired farm on city-owned land. In Amsterdam, another young couple told me about their current search for land to start an urban food forest, fulfilling a dream of working for themselves and living sustainably after years of pursuing hands-on farm training. With the Internet ideas and values about farming can spread internationally. I’ve also met several Dutch farmers who have been inspired by the work of Jean Martin Fortier and Curtis Stone, agricultural You-Tube stars from Canada who have been demonstrating just how much food can be grown in a small area.

Almost all of the beginning farmers I’ve met show distinct approaches that set them apart from more traditional farming methods. New farmers know that they have to do something different if they are going to survive in agriculture. For most, small-scale agriculture is the easiest entry point. In a country with the highest agricultural land prices in the world, land access is easier on small plots. For some, embracing sustainable methods, selling direct to the consumer, or even adding other functions to the farm business can help give them a competitive edge. Marcel Vijn, a Wageningen University researcher who studies new entrants to agriculture, says that many new farmers in the Netherlands pursue multifunctional business models, such as care farming, a practice I wrote about in an earlier post, to differentiate their businesses.

While beginning farmers are often driven by ideals of creating community, living sustainably, and creating an example, I’ve noticed that they are equally dedicated to making their farms sustainable economically. They face an uphill climb to convince banks, traditional farmers, parents and even customers to take them seriously. As an urban farmer in Amsterdam told me:

“It’s difficult to see myself as a farmer. I am a farmer. But it’s still weird to introduce myself as a farmer, because basically it’s a big garden…a lot of farmers will tell me I’m not a farmer…”

So the question remains: who will run the farms of the future? Will the food system continue to consolidate, with fewer larger farms, staffed by robots, and managed by GPS? Or will a new generation move toward a small-scale, diversified and localized food system? Reality is never so simple as a crisp dichotomy, and while such technology is not yet financially viable on a small scale, many new farmers I’ve met are excited by its potential. At this point, one thing seems certain: the challenges, values and interests of new farmer-entrepreneurs will be essential in shaping the future of food.

[1] This quote is an excerpt from an interview I conducted as part of my ongoing thesis research on beginning, first generation farmers. Since the interviews have been conducted with the promise of anonymity, I am sharing this quote, and others in this post, anonymously.

Images: Laura Genello, 2017.

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