The Family Farm: What's Next?

As buying locally produced food becomes an increasingly more popular option, the small family farm will need to play a much larger role in our food distribution chain. At first thought, this seems like very exciting news and a huge win for sustainability, but there are a few major hurdles that will need to be addressed moving forward; most importantly is the number of family farms available to supply the product. With the expansion of large scale farming over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for the small family farm in the U.S. to remain in business. There are now 5 million fewer farms in the U.S. than there were in the 1930’s. No doubt, we are far less of an agrarian society than we used to be, but we also have a far larger population to feed as well. According to Farm Aid, 330 farmers leave their land every week. Of the 2 million farms that remain in our country, only 565,000 are family run. As the smaller farms are closing, they are not being replaced with new farms. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that very few young people today are entering into the field of farming. Half of the farmers in the United States are between the ages of 45-65, and only 6% are under the age of 35. The average principal farm owner in our country is now over 55 years old.

So here’s the dilemma: with a society where the largest opportunity space involves understanding and participating comfortably with our technological advances, and momentum moving away from manufacturing (which is what farming technically is), how do we engage and entice the next generation to become farmers? Even as I research online, there is some very nice anecdotal evidence of a newer and very progressive crop of young farmers emerging. But still, the statistics are staggering and not looking that favorable.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but it seems like farming needs a “Marketing Makeover”. It needs to be presented as a career path that involves the direction that people are looking towards; one that involves technology and higher education; a path that is seen as engaged with your community with a strong civic voice. I live in Asheville, NC very near to a wonderful small college - Warren Wilson College - that has one of the best Sustainable Agriculture Programs in the country. The same is true out west with The University of California in Santa Cruz. We need to help the next generation of farmers understand that not only does this career choice involve going to college, but it involves not just working the land, but playing a critical role in your community. If we continue to represent farming as an old school agrarian lifestyle, we will struggle with finding our next generation of agricultural leaders. Perhaps the best we can do at the wholesale and retail level is to constantly celebrate the growers - remind the shoppers who walk the aisles where the products come from, and help put a name and face to the very products they purchase. Let’s personalize our food a little bit. After all, every pepper and every apple is the completed, finished product of a farmer's hard work and craftsmanship - no different than a sculptor's finished piece.

So, perhaps a name change is a good starting point for the “Marketing Makeover”. Instead of being called a farmer, how about Food Artisan? This does not mean we leave behind our respect and honor for the farmer – not at all. We will always cherish and acknowledge the history and contributions of the farmer; but we now move forward and celebrate the craftsmanship, the innovation, and the artistry of the Food Artisan. Let's celebrate our food, and let's celebrate the Food Artisans that provide it!