Where Is Tomorrow's Farmer?

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-- Farmers Market, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington

If you pay a visit to your local farmers market, in addition a lot of good fresh, locally grown food, you're likely to see something else: a lot of gray hairs. The latest figures we have, which are from the 2007 census, say that the average principal farm operator in the U.S. is 57.1 years old. And that number is rising steadily year by year.

Why?

Put simply, today's farmers are aging faster than younger people are, shall we say, coming into the field. In fact, in just the five years from 2000 to 2007, the number of principal farm operators over 75 increased by twenty percent, while the number of those under 25 -- already tiny -- shrank by another 30 percent. Overall, the number of farmers 55 and up increased significantly, while the number of those under 55 decreased significantly.

Clearly, this is not a trend that can continue forever: If we want to have farmers tomorrow to produce our food, we need to find ways to bring younger people into the profession today.

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Thanks to the Raynier Foundation for its generous support of this project.

 


copyright © 2009 by Michael Hurwicz
Irthlingz Productions

San Juan Island, in the Puget Sound about 75 miles northwest of Seattle, is a relatively prosperous, mostly rural community that's experiencing problems and finding some hopeful solutions. Longtime residents may be aware that the same people who were providing fresh locally grown food 20 or 30 years ago are still right there on the job today. Take, for example, Jim Lawrence, who owns and operates Thirsty Goose Farm. [ ... Jim L. describes how he got his start and what he does today ... ] But if a young Jim Lawrence were to come to San Juan Island today, he'd find it almost impossible to repeat which Jim did in the early 70's. Jim L: "When I have kids come by and say, 'Gee, I'd really like to work on an organic, sustainable farm, and you've got the place, and can I work for you,' [what I ask them] is 'Do you have a car, and do you have a place to live?' "I think the numbers are, if I worked for $4.00 an hour bought land for $1,000 an acre -- round numbers -- then you would now, at $40,000 an acre, need to make $160 an hour ..." Young would-be farmers who aren't making $160 an hour may be able to get started by leasing instead of buying. Jim L: "Because I own land, and I'm getting a little bit worn out, having young people leasing, coming in and learning what I do and moving on, is a great idea." [ ... Jim L. talks about other ways of finding land to farm without buying... ] "And I know many sixty-year-oldish farmers are looking at those kinds of alternatives to keep their farms going." One of those sixty-year-oldish farmers is Jim Sesby, who owns and operates Heritage Farm. Jim S: "While I still have the desire of a much younger person, I just don't have the strength or whatever that I used to. And so what I'm trying to do is kind of set things up so that other people can come in here and work and experience what we've got to offer here. I kind of see myself as a facilitator as something like that ..." [ ... Jim S. talks about wanting other people to come in and "take over" ... ] Heritage Farm has formalized this arrangement in an internship program that allows people to learn organic farming, while being provided with everything they need to live, from food to housing to spending money. It now appears, however, that this successful arrangement could be threatened by a regulatory environment that doesn't seem to recognize the value of the education and support that the farm provide for its interns. Jim S: "Labor and Industries is doing an audit ..." [ ... Jim S. talks about the audit and the internship arrangement... ] Jim L: "They're giving these people a great education." [ ... Jim L. describes how he pays for his child to have all the things the interns get for free on Heritage Farm ... ] [ ... Pritha, an intern on Heritage Farm, talks about the motivation of interns -- that it is education, not money ... ] Another approach to transferring food growing skills to the next generation -- and one that is hopefully immune to regulatory problems -- is the community garden. [... Bequin Boreen, community gardener and facilitator, talks about how the community garden came to be, with the help of the Seventh Day Adventist Church ... ] [... Nathan, Josiah and Zoe Wegemer working their plot in the community garden ...] On March 3, 2010, the House Democratic Caucus of the Washington State Legislature viewed this movie just before a key vote on a bill to establish a pilot farm internship program. The vote that followed went 96 - 2 in favor of the bill. As of early March, 2010, it looked very likely that San Juan Island would have a farm internship program! Produced by Sharon Abreu Written and Directed by Michael Hurwicz copyright 2009-2010 by Irthlingz Productions Thanks to the Raynier Foundation for its generous support of this project.