young farmer in a field

Young Farmers on the Rise

For millennials, the farm may be the answer

It’s not quite the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, but for only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under the ag of 35 is increasing.

Young people are going back to the farm.

Nationwide the growth is small, slightly more than 2 percent between 2007 and 2012, but in some states that growth has been by more than 20 percent. Combine that with the fact that 69 percent of those returning have college degrees, and you’ve got something to get excited about. Especially when you consider that all other farming age groups, save for the oldest, are in decline.

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), a not-for-profit out of Hudson, New York, may be able to paint a better picture. While “young” is meant to include all people who are in their first 10 years of production agriculture, the NYFC vision is clear — a country where young people who are willing to work, get trained and take a little risk can support themselves and their families in farming.

In November 2017, NYFC released the results of a National Young Farmer Survey that paints a pretty clear picture of who the young farmer is and the challenges they are facing. The survey sample was 3,517 respondents, under 40, living in the U.S.

 

did you grow up on a farm infographic

NYFC Survey, 2017

 

women farmers air chart

NYFC Survey, 2017

 

pie chart: farmers by race

NYFC Survey, 2017

 

The survey clearly outlines the demographics of these young farmers, including the fact that 75 percent of the new farmers do not come from a farming background. So why are millennials headed to the farm? Some say it’s the double bottom line of value and values.

 

NYFC Survey, 2017

 

Value

There is no doubt that farm-to-table fare and clean living is having a golden moment. Go to Instagram and you can see post after post of millennial foodies who are sharing their “clean food,” and they are willing to pay for it.

The desire to fill this market niche is evident in the farms that are being established by millennials. Most are fewer than 50 acres to start, though size is growing with time spent in the industry. Additionally, the NYFC survey showed that this new crop of farmers is more likely to approach farming more holistically.

 

farming practices bar graph

NYFC Survey, 2017

 

Not only this, but they tend to diversify their crops or livestock and be seriously involved in their local food systems. In fact, 66 percent of respondents identified community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, farmers’ markets/farm stands or farm-to-table restaurants as their top sales channels.

And it must be working. Survey respondents who reporting making between $10,000 and $499,000 in sales have increased from the percentage of farmers reporting those revenues in the 2012 ag census. Clearly showing where the value is in millennials returning to the farm. But what about the values?

Values

It all boils down to making an impact. Stories from major papers like the Washington Post, online outlets like Huffington Post and magazines like Fortune have featured articles and op-ed pieces on the return of millennials to the farm. The common response is that they want to be socially conscious and have an immediate impact with what they are doing.

That impact is magnified through their marketing channels. By selling through CSA programs and farmers’ markets, the millennial farmer doesn’t have a faceless customer. They know who is consuming their crop. They build that relationship and can see the impact that they are making in the community.

For the millennial who wants to build their own schedule, make an impact and change the world, farming is a natural connection point. The current movement is the manifestation of thinking globally and acting locally, giving educated, entrepreneurial, socially conscious young people a new opportunity in agriculture.

So what does this mean for the agriculture industry?

Be aware. As the number of young farmers continues to grow, they will be resistant to the “how it’s always worked” mentality that can be prominent in agriculture. They are more tied to technology and may not see the existing channel as the best path forward for their farm.

Success can be had by helping this next generation of agriculture and partnering with them, rather than dictating the ways of ag.