two men and a child standing infront of a barn

The Future of Farming Is in Crisis—Here's What's Being Done to Safeguard Our Food System

There’s a mounting crisis in agriculture that isn’t often talked about: at an average of nearly 60 years old, many U.S. farmers are aging out of the business, and younger generations have been slow to step in, leaving a troubling gap. EatingWell looks at what’s being done to safeguard our food system.

For the better part of a decade, Joel Talsma's career path led him away from the family farm. Like many rural kids, he yearned for a steady, salaried position—anything but the financial uncertainties and un­ relenting work that his father and grandfather endured on their land in southwestern Minnesota.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in agricultural education and spending time in the National Guard, including a tour of duty in Iraq, he became a grain buyer at a large agricultural co­op in St. Paul. But Talsma found the desk job and life in the suburbs unfulfilling, and realized he longed to work the land. Today, he's right back in the house where he grew up. The 36­-year­-old farms roughly 480 acres full time, including some of his father's land.

Talsma is an exception—bucking a trend that should con­cern anyone who eats. Put simply, American agriculture is in the throes of a demographic catastrophe. The men and women who produce our food are an old group and getting older. In 2017 (the most recent year for which census data is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture), the aver­age age of the head of a farm was just shy of 60—nearly a de­cade older than it was in 1978, and two decades older than the current average factory worker. One in three farmers is over the age of 65. And the problem is worsening. Although the ranks of young farmers like Talsma went up by 2% between 2012 and 2017, that increase was dwarfed by the growth in farmers 65 or older, whose numbers rose by 11%.

"Those census numbers should be a call to action," says Sophie Ackoff, co­-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, a 3,000­member organization with 50 grassroots chapters across the nation. "The recent small uptick in the number of young farmers, however hopeful, is not nearly enough to replace those who are retiring. The country needs more young producers to ensure a healthy food system. We have a crisis of attrition as farmers retire with no successor in place." Her organization has found that only 10% of farmers surveyed had succession plans. Which raises the question: When this older generation is gone, who will feed us? According to land ­use experts at the coalition, the coun­try could face food shortages.

Sheep on a farm
Credit: Nate Ryan

Another critical question: Why aren't more young people interested in farming? For one thing, they enter a career with greater challenges than those their parents confronted. The primary one, according to Ackoff, is the surging cost of crop­ land, which, over the last two decades, has more than doubled to an average of $4,420 per acre—far outstripping the rate of in­flation and growth in farm revenues. In addition, because of cli­mate change, these producers face more financial uncertainty. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, increases in the frequency and severity of both floods and droughts brought about by our ever-­warming planet are making it more difficult to grow crops and raise livestock. Hotter summer weather in the Midwest is threatening corn and soybean pro­duction—which accounts for 85% of the region's crop sales—as well as the fruits and vegetables that are trucked to grocery stores. Weeds, pests and pathogens that thrive in warmer tem­peratures and wetter summers are reducing crop yields and necessitating heavier applications of expensive pesticides. In California, water shortages have forced growers to let more than 1 million once-­productive acres go fallow. And then there are the ever­ present challenges of making a living off the land: excruciatingly long hours, no paid vacations (or often vacations of any sort), the risks of performing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country—and at the end of the year, the real pros­pect that your efforts will generate little or no profit.

Many of Talsma's relatives and childhood friends joined the ranks of young people who leave the farm. "Your income can vary widely from one year to the next, unlike most other jobs where you know how much to expect. If you don't like risk and uncertainty, you are not going to enjoy farming," he says. "Even at the best of times, you have to be comfortable with always being finan­cially strapped. You have to accept that your wealth will be tied up in land, machinery and other assets. And there are so many factors, like the weather, over which you have no control."

Safeguarding Our Food System

Recognizing the severity of the situation, farm organizations, tech companies and the U.S. government have initiated a variety of programs to encourage more young people to choose careers in agriculture. As part of its mission to "shift power and change policy to equitably resource our new generation of working farmers," Ackoff says the National Young Farmers Coalition has flown members from across the country to Washington, D.C., to lobby for student­ loan forgiveness for those pursuing agricultural careers, as well as tax incentives to make it easier to transfer land between generations. At the federal level, the most recent farm bill gave historic funding for programs that offer loans to beginning farmers. Food companies are stepping in too. One example: Niman Ranch, which sells sustainably raised pork, beef and lamb. It provides free sows (mom pigs) to novice farmers and guarantees that it will purchase any hogs they produce. It also offers financial support for sustainable farming practices, including establishing pollinator habitats. And its requirement that all Niman hogs be raised on open pasture or in large, airy hoop barns leads to much more pleasant and healthful working conditions than those found in the fetid con­finement barns where conventional pigs are housed. All these differences appeal to younger farmers. The results have been striking. Since the 1990s, the average age of a Niman farmer has dropped from 58 to 43 and continues to decline.

Talsma serves as an example that efforts to keep young farmers on the land can work. His transition from a 9­-to-­5 lifestyle to full­-time farming was gradual. He started by raising beef cattle on some pastures belonging to his father. With a loan from the USDA's Farm Service Agency designed specifi­cally for young farmers, he purchased 160 acres of cropland and planted it with corn, soybeans and alfalfa, which he sells on the commodity market. Over the years, his cattle herd expanded. Then he added sheep and hogs. In 2018, seven years after leav­ing his St. Paul desk job, he bought more land from his parents.

"Being the son of a farmer gave me many advantages over someone without an agricultural background," Talsma says. "Experience raising cattle and growing crops qualified me for low-­interest loans to buy land. My father was able to extend temporary financing until those loans came through." He also had use of a corn planter, manure spreader, skid loader, tractor and combine that his father owned—a huge financial help, since a new combine alone can cost $500,000 or more. "To buy the land and equipment from scratch would have been super capital­ intensive. I'm not going to claim it's impossible," Talsma says, then trails off into a long and meaningful, "but ..."

Man driving a tractor
Credit: Nate Ryan

Leaning on Next-Gen Practices

Hand-­me-­down equipment aside, this is definitely not his father's farm. Talsma has repudiated what he describes as a common fallacy of modern agriculture: that you have to spe­cialize in one species of livestock or a single cash crop. He did the opposite. In addition to corn, alfalfa and soybeans, he produces 750 hogs, 150 lambs and 300 cattle a year. He further specializes by raising 25 of his cattle as grass­ and forage­-fed only, instead of finishing them on corn. It's a boutique effort that generates higher profit margins than his corn­-finished cow operation. His sheep receive no antibiotics, which means he can sell them for a premium price to Superior Farms, a California-­based sustainable­-meat company. His hogs are raised in accordance with the stringent animal-­welfare regu­lations of Niman Ranch, which forbids the use of antibiotics and buys the pigs at a guaranteed, premium price that assures profitability in the volatile pork market. Essentially, every as­pect of Talsma's farm has been maximized in ways never used by his father and grandfather. "Rarely do we have a time when a pen or shed is empty around here," he says.

Like many farmers of his generation, Talsma is acutely aware of environmental concerns and sees agriculture as a way to help. He grows cover crops instead of leaving his land bare during the winter months. This prevents erosion and improves the fertility and structure of his soil, with the added benefit of providing food for his animals, whose manure, in a virtuous cycle, further enhances his fields. Healthy soil is key because it has the ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which plants draw in through their roots.

Jesse and Caroline McDougall, ages 43 and 35, are also breaking with traditional methods and adopting new conserva­tion practices to make inexpensive, worn-­out land productive. They had almost no experience farming when acreage that had been in Caroline's family for four generations became avail­able. The tract, a few hundred acres set among the rolling hills of southern Vermont, sustained a traditional New England dairy until the mid­-1960s, when it proved financially untenable. (The number of dairy farms in the state has decreased by 84% since then.) For a time, Caroline's aunt boarded horses on the land and sold riding equipment. When she died in 2012, family members held a meeting on the future of the land. Jesse and Caroline, who had jobs as website developers, stepped for­ ward and "asked for them to give us a shot," says Jesse.

Initially, the neophytes' efforts re­sulted in disaster. For decades, Caroline's aunt had rotated corn and hay through the fields and maintained the appearance of lushness with plentiful applications of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Jesse put an end to that practice, fearing that they may have brought about Caroline's aunt's premature death from cancer. (He said she loved the sweetish smell of the herbi­cide Roundup.) Untreated, the fields reverted to what Jesse de­scribes as gravel pits. "You could walk from one end to the other and not step on a blade of grass. Nothing grew there," he says.

If they were going to depend on the farm financially, they would have to find a way to make that barren soil productive. Their ignorance became an asset. Jesse watched a TED Talk by Allan Savory, a controversial advocate of a type of agriculture called regenerative grazing. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Savory advocates keeping cows and sheep confined in small clusters and moving them frequently to areas of fresh grass, mimicking their natural herding and grazing instincts. The tightly packed animals trample the weeds and provide ma­nure to fuel the growth of grasses after they are moved to the next paddock. Most range scientists advise doing the opposite.

Out of desperation, the McDougalls decided to give Savory's methods a try. After all, they had nothing to lose. As a test run, they bought a few dozen chickens and kept them in a 10­by­10­ foot pen, which they moved across the stony ground twice a day. The change was remarkable and nearly instantaneous. By the end of the summer, the strip of field the birds had worked looked like someone had rolled a lush, green carpet over it. The chickens had scratched through the hard crust of the soil, fertilized the ground with their droppings, and left behind a thatch of dead weeds that acted as a mulch and helped the soil retain moisture. Today, that land provides a living for the McDougalls and their two young kids. Fields that once barely fed a dozen horses now support 200 sheep, also raised according to regenerative principles. The ground has become so fertile that the McDou­galls could easily add more animals if they had buyers for them. The costs of agrichemicals, which once amounted to more than $20,000 a year, have dropped to zero, and the unspent money goes toward the salary of one full­-time and one part-­time em­ployee. "By managing our animals in this way, we've converted a negative feedback loop, where the land deteriorated, into a positive one where everything gets stronger each year," says Jesse, who now makes a side income consulting with other farmers wanting to transition to regenerative practices.

Like Talsma, the McDougalls have concentrated on max­imizing profits through various revenue streams. It's an im­portant business model that younger generations, used to operating in the gig economy, understand well—and a potential draw for those considering getting into the business. To get the most value out of their farm products, the McDougalls sell their goods directly to customers through a website instead of selling them to wholesalers and other middlemen. When Jesse found out that the slaughterhouse that processed his sheep threw their skins in the trash, he took them and made a deal with a nearby environmentally friendly tannery. He now sells the hides himself, earning as much from what was once a waste product as he does from the meat. "Every farm has something untapped that can be done to make it more viable," he says.

Pig farm
Credit: Nate Ryan

The Draw of Tech

If doing good for the planet, not to mention being profitable, could entice a new breed of farmers, agricultural tech compa­nies, such as Indigo Ag and Granular, Inc., know that state­-of-the­-art technology—which allows farmers to increase crop production, accurately monitor yields and apply the ideal amount of fertilizer over vast stretches of land from behind an office desk while maximizing profits—is another way to lure those who are far more comfortable in the world of computers than their parents. People like Kasey Bamberger, 29. She graduated from college in 2013 with a major not in soil science or livestock management, but in business, and came back home, joining her father, grandfather, cousin, uncle and two dozen other employees at Bryant Agriculture Enterprise, which grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 20,000 acres in southwestern Ohio. Today, she and her cousin, Heath Bryant, who is 10 years older, run the organization. He oversees field work, she is responsible for finance and adopting the elec­tronic systems that are now critical to the farm's prosperity.

With the help of Granular Inc., a 7­-year-­old San Francisco­ based agricultural software company, Bamberger manages data from every one of the more than 130 separate fields without leaving her desk. The software tracks fertilizer appli­cations and seeding rates, and gives her real­time information about what's going on in the fields—from rainfall and exact tillage depth to the number of hours employees spend working each area of land—along with total crop yields and, ultimately, the profit. "Instead of one size fits all, I can manage each field individually. And I could manage one of them 50 miles away as if it was right outside my office window," she says. "We have always been progressive here, even in my grandfather's day. You can't farm tomorrow like you do today."

She also works with Indigo Ag, a Boston-­based farm-­tech company that sells microbial treatments—not chemicals—for seeds that help produce plants with drought tolerance and high yields. Bamberger introduced the new crops to some of her fields and is conducting side­-by-­side trials with acreage of untreated seed to compare results. She is also experimenting with a chemical produced by Sound Agriculture, an Emeryville, California, company. It's a spray, applied to the leaves of corn, that stimulates natural soil microbes to help the plants more efficiently use the important nutrients nitrogen and phospho­rus already in the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers.

Bamberger is taking steps in the direction of regenerative practices, as well, but with a high-­tech twist. Working with Indigo, she is embarking on carbon trading. The company's program allows her to quantify the amount of carbon her crops draw down from the atmosphere and sequester in the soil as well as the emissions avoided by adopting climate­ friendly practices, such as minimizing tillage. Indigo then sells those carbon credits to businesses like IBM and JP Mor­gan Chase and Co. to offset some of the emissions they create, and splits that income—about $27 per credit (and rising) as of early 2022—with the farmer, who receives at least 75%. Depending on various factors, such as the practices farmers employ and the climate in their area, they can earn an extra $5 to $30 per acre annually through these carbon credits. In a sense, it's a new cash crop. "Young farmers are interested in carbon trading," says Jon Hennek, vice president and global head of carbon product for Indigo Ag. "They are already tech­ savvy and that makes them well-­suited to making the changes necessary to sell credits for the carbon they sequester. It pro­vides a new revenue stream for them."

two men carrying a fence
Credit: Nate Ryan

Lowering the Barriers

The commitment of growers like Talsma, the McDougalls and Bamberger offers reasons to be hopeful about the future of our food system. But we are running out of time, according to Sophie Ackoff of the National Young Farmers Coalition. "We see this moment as key," she says. "Will we be able to look back and say that we've made the transition to a new gener­ation of farmers before that land goes out of production for­ ever? We need for the policies to be in place now."

The federal farm bill, a $428 billion program last updated in 2018, affects all aspects of agriculture in this coun­try. Currently, the USDA has no single department or person to coordinate programs that help young farmers access and afford land. When COVID assistance to farmers became available, for example, many young people couldn't take advantage of it because it was designed for commodity farmers. USDA crop insurance—which provides a crucial safety net should crops fail, which they do—is also designed for big farms that grow thousands of acres of one thing, not start­up farmers who rely on a diversity of products for financial stability.

The bill is due to be renewed in 2023, and the coalition is ad­vocating for program adjustments and outreach to help young and novice farmers. In addition to creating a coordinating body at the USDA to handle land access and transition, Ackoff's goal for the next farm bill is to earmark $2.5 billion specifically to help equitably transition 1 million acres of land from retiring growers to young farmers and farmers of color. She was heart­ened early last year when the members of the new administra­tion approached her and let it be known that they recognized the problems of an aging farm population—and wanted to do better. "As an organization, we've gone from being the new kid on the block to being a group that agriculture committee mem­bers and White House staffers talk to before making decisions," Ackoff says. "Before, the needs of young farmers never came to the surface. They are totally there now."