Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

Are farmers at risk of becoming extinct?  Possibly to some extent.  While there are many reasons for the decline in agriculture as the chosen profession for today's younger adults, the fact remains that we may very well see a time when the majority of our farmers pass on and there are not enough younger farmers to take their place.

According to the Start2Farm.gov, a service of the National Agricultural Library (USDA):

"“We have an aging farming population. If left unchecked, this could threaten our ability to produce the food we need – and also result in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of working lands that we rely on to clean our air and water.” – Secretary Vilsack, August 12 Opening Comments to the Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers.

The average age of a farmer today in America is 57 years of age. Five years ago it was 55. We have had an increase of 30% of the farmers over the age of 75 and a decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25 by 20%."
This subject happens to be one close to my heart.  My husband, Mike is a third generation farmer, is 54 years old and I am 47 years old.  None of our children or any of our nieces and nephews have chosen to pursue farming as an occupation.  Unless some of our grandchildren develop a love of farming, then what has been lovingly nurtured and tended to for three generations at the Cupp Farm will be no more.  This breaks my heart.  Of course, we would never try to coerce our children or grandchildren into a career that they don't willingly choose for themselves, but I do feel there are things we can do as adults to help the children learn to appreciate their farming heritage.  This doesn't just apply to farming families.  We need to be educating all of the children in our country of the importance of farming.  We should do so  not in an effort to convert them to choosing farming as a career choice (although that would be an awesome benefit) but rather to insure that regardless of a child's chosen path, he/she learns to really appreciate and support the farmers that put food on their table.  At one time it was common to have a kitchen garden and a family milk cow.  Now most of the families in the United States rely on a farmer to provide their produce, milk, and meat.  So many times, children are so far removed from their food source, that they don't even make the connection.  Unfortunately, a lot of adults are similarly removed.  I will never forget a conversation with a lady almost old enough to be my mother, who stated she didn't want my farm fresh eggs because eggs from chickens were disgusting and she would rather buy her eggs in the store.  I just had to shake my head and wonder if she knew that the eggs in the store came from chickens as well.

I believe educating our children is the key to insuring that we continue to grow future farmers and equally important,  a society that supports those farmers.  And how do we do that?  I have a few ideas that I would like to share.
1.  Make everyday activities into educational opportunities:  Talk to children of all ages about where their food originates.  Having eggs for breakfast?  This is a great opportunity to talk about chickens and the farmers that care for them.  Making a salad for dinner?  This is a good time to discuss how things grow seasonally.  One can expand the conversation to fit the age of the child. Look for opportunities to discuss farming and agriculture as you travel in the car or watch a movie.  Any opportunity you can find to discuss agriculture with your children is a learning opportunity for them as well as a way for the two of you to connect on this important issue.  

2.  Grow something.  Anything.  Even if you don't have ground to grow a garden or access to a community garden, plant something simple in containers and let the children in your life help.  Let them see the progress as the plant grows and produces.  And, if what your planted ends up dying, use it as an opportunity to explain that many times farmers face crop failure.  Anyone who gardens, produces crops, or tends to animals is going to eventually have loss and failure.  In addition, empathy for the farmer who struggles and joy for the farmer when he is successful is a good lesson.  
3.  I am not one to advocate everyone trying their hand at raising livestock.  There are so many people who do not understand the level of expense and commitment it takes to raise their own livestock.  However, if you are up to the challenge and have done your homework, raising livestock is a great way for children to learn more about the agricultural lifestyle.  If raising animals is not the right choice for your family for whatever reason, then see if you can find a working farm with livestock for your child to visit.  (Please be considerate of the fact that not every farm has very expensive liability insurance it takes to welcome visitors and be respectful of the fact that not every farm can accommodate visitors for this reasons or simply because of their work load.  Consider it a privilege when you are able to visit a working farm and don't begrudge any cover charge for your visit as it helps to offset the expense of the insurance needed to provide the opportunity to the public.)

4.  Support your local farm stands produce auctions, and farmer's markets and take the children in your life along with you.  In this manner your are teaching your children to support local business, and to make healthy choices while they absorb the ongoing educational opportunities of being submersed in agricultural environment.

5.  Introduce your kids of all ages to books and literature that promotes farming.  Even the smallest of children love books of farm animals.  Read with them and discuss the things your read.  If you are unsure of something, then take the opportunity to research an agricultural subject together.
6.  Take your kids to the pumpkin patch, the local orchard, or the small family owned creamery if you have one locally.  Visiting the County or State Fair is a fun agricultural related field trip for the family.  (Make sure to visit the livestock and home preservation sections of the fair and discuss what you see!)  Some areas host Agricultural Field Days which can be a great conversation starter for you and your children.

7.  Get involved in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.  Don't just buy the products but talk to the children in your life about the products you receive and the work that was put into producing them.  Teach your children that we shouldn't take these things for granted and that someone worked very hard to provide this service to them.  
8.  Buy your milk from a local farmer if possible.  Depending on where you live and your personal preferences, you might be able to purchase raw milk or buy pasteurized milk from a small farm with a creamery.  Let your children help you make simple dairy products such as butter.

9.  Find blogs and Facebook pages on the internet that are age appropriate for the children in your life and share the pictures and stories with them.  A few to consider:  USDA for Kids, National Agriculture in the Classroom, My American Farm, National Agriculture in the Classroom, Education World, and others.   
10.  Get kids involved in agriculturally minded programs such as 4-H, Farm Based Education Programs, and  Farm to School among others.  
11.  Learn about food preservation, buy produce locally, and spend time together drying, canning or freezing summer garden goodness for future enjoyment.  A few links to help you get started:  National Center for Home Preservation, Ball Canning, and Canning Granny.  Here is a fairly simple and great starter project that I posted earlier on our blog for home canned grape juice.

My desire is that this blog entry will be an encouragement to all of us to support agriculture in every way that we can.  It may sound trite but No Farms/No Food is not just a nice bumper sticker but a reality.  It's up to all of us to see that our farms remain and that farming continues to be a career choice for our children.

Note:  Educating children about farm life is so important to me that I recently started a blog specifically for children.  I would love it if you would check it out and share it with the children in your life.  You can find T. Cupp's Junior Farm Friends at this link.  

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