The National Heritage Area known as Journey Through Hallowed Ground is recognizable for its rolling hills and mountains, and its farmland. While there are a dozen or so cities and towns that dot the Piedmont from Gettysburg to Charlottesville, farms still form most of the landscape inhabited by our founding fathers and they are emblematic of the culture that helped form the nation. The farmland hasn’t changed that much. What may be missing is the next generation of farmers.
On May 2nd, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the 2012 ag census data for the states. Since 1840, the U.S. government has been conducting censuses of agriculture. Those who have been watching agriculture trends for some time will not be surprised as to how few farmers there are age 34 and younger.
The trend has been in place for some time. The “green revolution” began in the 1940s and really kicked in during the 1960s and 1970s. It involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, better equipment, more irrigation, hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides and it has vastly increased U.S. farm productivity. For example, average corn yield increased from 30 bushels per acre in 1930 to 150 bushels per acre today. It also resulted in increased farm sizes and it has reduced the need for farmers and farm laborers. The average farm size in the U.S. increased from 174 acres in 1940 to 434 acres in 2012. According to a USDA report Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming, published last year, the number of farms with at least 10,000 acres of cropland grew 179% from 2001 to 2011 (from 409 farms to 1,140 farms).
As the need for new farmers decreased, ag in the classroom was dropped in most school districts. Farm children left the farms to seek other careers. Yet, farm productivity continued to improve with new equipment and new production methods. In 1940, roughly 20% of all farm operators were 34 and under. By 2012, that dropped to 5.6%. There are nearly six times as many farmers age 65+ as there are farmers 34 and younger. The USDA predicts that up to half of all farmers are likely to retire in the next decade. Who will replace them?
In the United States, the swath of land within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area is an old farming region. The farms were carved out of the wooded hills and valleys in the early 18th century as the leaders of the colonies began debating the formation of a new nation. Today, the farm sizes put them at a disadvantage of scale for commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) and industrial livestock production.
In the last few decades a new ag trend has emerged–the local food movement. Direct food sales in the U.S. have been growing twice as fast as total ag sales. These types of operations are well suited to the small-scale farms in the region and this has generated renewed interest in farming. However, beginning farmers are finding it difficult getting access to land. Most did not grow up on a farm. Those who want to grow vegetables, fruits, and livestock need a place to live on the farm and water for the crops and/or livestock. For most beginning farmers, it makes sense to lease land, as long as they have enough experience and there is housing and the ability to have the infrastructure to operate.
|States in the National Heritage Area|
|Average farm size||166||130||181||168||434|
|Percentage of farm operators 34 or younger||4.9%||8.3%||6.1%||4.2%||5.6%|
Each of the four states in the National Heritage Area are striving to preserve the region’s farmland and help beginning farmers gain access to land. For example, in Maryland there is the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation and Maryland FarmLINK, a free resource that helps farmers sell, buy or lease farmland, mentor novice farmers and find important farming news and information. Resources like this are important, but communities will need to support these efforts if they want the programs to succeed by getting to know their farmers and purchasing local farm products.
This is an important time for the region. If we hope to continue to see the working landscapes and witness the farming culture that helped to create our nation, we will need to support opportunities for the next generation of farmers to get established.
Bowen is now the Program Director for Maryland FarmLINK, an on-line resource for new and established farmers, and coordinates the Maryland FarmLINK Mentor Match Program. He also maintains a private consulting business, Land Stewardship Solutions, LLC and volunteers his time serving on the Board of Directors for the American Chestnut Land Trust and Calvert Farmland Trust.