Over the past decades, the number of farms in
America has decreased while farmers have grown a little grayer—a third of primary operators are now 65 or older. Now, however, those stubborn demographics are shifting. For the second time in a century, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) census on agriculture shows an increase in primary operators age 35 and under.
To understand why, we spoke with Andrew Bahrenburg, national policy director of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). Then we caught up with three young tobacco farmers to hear about their dreams and challenges firsthand.
A National Perspective
The NYFC helps young farmers through training, research and policy advocacy. As Bahrenburg explains, “Given the shortfall in farmers, the message is, ‘Your country needs you,’ and [the NYFC] supports many pathways to credit and access to land.”
Based on the NYFC’s recent national survey, Bahrenburg says millennials who want to reconnect with the land are driving the increase. Many are women, more are farmers of color than the national average, and many did not grow up on farms. They are building small produce farms close to cities and selling directly to restaurants and consumers. According to Bahrenburg, “One thing that’s generating excitement in Washington is that these millennial farmers are conservation-minded and use
A quarter of respondents were multigenerational farmers, which is where we expect to find our future tobacco farmers. Like their small-farm peers, they are college-educated and business-minded. Bahrenburg says young farmers are driving innovation in social media, marketing and building new tools, “from a lettuce harvester using a hand drill to experimenting with drones.”
All young farmers face similar challenges, which the survey defined as access to land, student loan debt, labor and health insurance. Even for multigenerational farmers, passing down land can be surprisingly complex and comes with sizable tax burdens.
If young farmers can’t access land and don’t have resources, Bahrenburg expects this small rise in young farmers to be a short-term blip rather than a real trend. To help growers, the NYFC promotes farmland conservation programs, working with land trusts and creating tax incentives to get young farmers onto the land. It also works with the USDA to streamline access and create an online presence, and it proposes creating a preapproval process for Farm Service Agency Direct Farm Ownership loans.
A Fifth-Generation Farmer with Engineering Know-How
Benjamin Hobson, a 24-year-old grower in Yadkin Valley, North Carolina, works on his family’s farm growing row crops and tobacco and raising poultry. His dad has been farming this land for 35 years. Currently, the two are working with an accountant and a lawyer to structure the farm for a slow transition.
Hobson warns that, for a new farmer, “acquiring equipment and land to start a farm from scratch would be so difficult.” Still, he suggests that most bankers are more willing to help someone who is young and wants to farm. He feels optimistic about the future for
With commodity prices low, Hobson sees the direction of farming as higher-tech. “Precision agriculture with planting, spraying and harvesting is where young farmers need to move,” Hobson says. “You can’t go from traditional farming to new techniques immediately. It takes constant work.”
Hobson graduated from North Carolina State University (NCSU) with a degree in biological engineering and a concentration in agricultural engineering. With a minor in agricultural business management, he believes an education is one of the most important tools for young growers. “The knowledge I gained has helped me to handle technology and manage equipment,” he says.
As Hobson looks forward to eventually taking over the farm, he plans to continue farming tobacco. It’s a tough crop, “which is almost political,” he says. “There are years when [contractors] want a lot and others when they cut you back. But you handle it like a business and adapt as it changes.”
Although Hobson does see a number of his peers leaving farming, he believes that “as long as people have a drive and have some initiative, they’ll come back later.”
A Sixth-Generation Farmer Who Loves His Tech
Brandon Batten, age 32, works with his father and uncle on their Johnston County, North Carolina, farm. He’s the most tech-savvy of the bunch, and while his ideas are sometimes met with apathy, many—including a
GPS tractor—tend to become farm necessities.
Batten earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from NCSU. He recommends that any young farmer go to college because it “establishes a work ethic you can use. I don’t care what you get a degree in.” Business management is a good option, he adds. “Driving a combine is the most fun on the farm, but the most important work is in
Nothing, however, replaces learning from the older generation. “The two years running the office with Grandpa really helped me understand the business, Batten says. He reminds young farmers to talk early about passing on the farm to future generations. “It’s a hard conversation but very important. They all want to leave a legacy.”
One of Batten’s major challenges with tobacco is the unpredictable nature of annual contracts. Days before 2018 began, “I still didn’t know if I’d have a contract or for how much,” which made equipment decisions difficult, he says.
Batten’s unique specialty may be bringing technology to the farm. He is now starting a drone service for other farmers to scout disease patterns and identify pest damage. During last spring’s heavy rains, drones helped him quickly identify fields with severe water damage, adjust fertilizers as needed and quickly document the damage for any potential
Batten feels there’s a tremendous opportunity for young people to get into farming. “You just need to challenge the stereotypes of young people not wanting to work hard and desiring instant gratification. There are lots of hardworking young farmers out there.”
Start Small and Harness Social Media
Collin Blalock grew up on a farm in Wilson County, North Carolina, and while looking for a summer job, his dad suggested growing Southern peas. Blalock rolled up his shirt sleeves and started Collin’s Produce. Over five years, his small venture grew into an 18-acre produce farm, selling to restaurants, wholesalers and farmers markets. Blalock has a mind for the business, and along with managing Collin’s Produce, he studies agriculture at NCSU. “Learning that farmers are aging made me want to farm,” he says. “I have a farm that I can pass on, and I should take
For Collin’s Produce, he built new sales channels, “which is hard when people have been doing this for years and customers are satisfied with what’s out there.” Social media helped Blalock expand his business, reaching potential out-of-county and even
Another challenge is “the lack of consumer knowledge people have about agriculture,” Blalock says. He gets a number of questions about genetically modified products, organics and even why local corn isn’t available in
However, Blalock says being young has its advantages. His advice? “Lots of people want to help someone who’s young, and you have to carry through. Be consistent, reputable, reliable, and keep the customer happy.” He’s glad he started small, too. “The worst thing is to spend a lot of money on a big idea. If there’s a big crop failure, that can set you back years, but a smaller failure isn’t such a big problem.”
Blalock hopes to keep growing tobacco. “It’s my favorite crop of my dad’s,” he says. “I love watching it grow in the field and cure in the barns. It’s still a good cash crop and got a lot of farmers to where they are today.”
Open to new ideas and eager for technology, these young farmers are hardworking and dedicated to keeping their families’ farm legacies alive. If committed growers like these stay in farming—and more join them—the future of American farms is bright.