Over the past few decades, there has been a dramatic shift in the demographics of farming. The average age of farmers across the US is over 60 years of age. Over half of all arable land in the US is controlled by farmers over the age of 55. With many young people moving away from rural backgrounds to pursue lives in urban settings, many farming communities are on their last legs. This is a disheartening, and frankly frightening thought – how do we feed an ever-expanding population with fewer and fewer people producing our food? With more and more farmers retiring and land in the hands of fewer and fewer people, what can be done to ensure that the security and resiliency of our food system stays intact?
One encouraging observation is that there is a movement of young people hoping to reconnect with their agricultural roots and produce food using new, or in some cases revitalized, techniques. At many universities, the fields of sustainable agriculture, organic food systems, and agroecology are growing and many students hope to start their own farms after graduation. Little pockets of small, sustainable, and organic farms can be seen across the landscape, but many young farmers are burdened by the lack of available arable land.
For the sake of argument, let’s entertain the idea of reallocating farmland to young, motivated farmers hoping to shift the current large-scale farming paradigms and revitalize rural communities. What if we created a program which pairs retiring farmers with motivated young people looking to get their hands dirty. This could be a voluntary program funded by the US Department of Agriculture and organized in cooperation with agricultural non-profits who promote sustainable agriculture and organic production. It may be a win-win for farmers, who could benefit both economically, through a percentage of profits made by the newcomer, and through securing the long-term health and security of their farm. The younger generation of farmers could benefit through priceless knowledge on farming practices, techniques, and through access to land otherwise out of reach.
This may sound a bit far fetch, particularly in a country with such a high opinion of private property, but maybe it’s worth entertaining. Providing small plots of land to innovative young people may make it possible to support and sustain local rural economies. The program could help break down some of the barriers existing between the current agricultural paradigms and promote movement to small-scale localized production. Through networking, newly formed partnerships and relationships between the insightful older generation, and the innovative younger generation, a program such as this could solve some of the serious issues facing the food system and agricultural communities across the US.