According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census data, 3.2 million farmers nationwide operated 2.1 million farms covering 915 million acres. Those farmers were older and more diverse in their operations than in the previous 2007 census. They also were fewer in numbers, even more so for women than men.
On the other hand, more minorities ran farms in 2012, according to the census data; however, the number of total beginning farmers declined.
The average age for farm operators rose again in 2012, with those numbers holding true over a 30-year period, the data shows. Of those numbers, 6 percent of primary operators were under 35 years old. Sixty percent were between 35 and 64 years old, and 33 percent were 65 or older.
At the time of the 2012 census, newer farmers had operated their farm less than 10 years, which was a decline of 20 percent from 2007. Almost 172,000 had farmed less than five years, a decline of 23 percent. The 2012 data also showed that 61 percent worked off the farm at times, and 40 percent were employed off the farm for 200 days or more.
Of the 2.1 million farms, most profited less than in previous years. In fact, 75 percent sold less than $50,000 in products, and 57 percent sold less than $10,000.
Although the data shows there might be fewer farmers today than years ago, the smaller numbers don’t dampen the enthusiasm of young farmers willing to make a living on the farm. After all, they want to feed their families as their forefathers did.
Today’s successful young farmers are “true entrepreneurs willing to try just about anything, and they are creative in managing their operations,” said Ron Saacke, Young Farmers coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation in Richmond.
However, Saacke said these young farmers know they must make the numbers and dollars work in order to remain successful. “I’ve seen examples where they have,” he said, “and I’ve seen examples where they haven’t.”
Success and failure show no favors, he said, because many have involved small and large operations.
Saacke suggests that today’s farming environment requires enterprising individuals who are willing to try anything to make their operations successful. “It’s challenging us,” he said of today’s farming environment. “We don’t ever know if it’s farming until we make it work.”
Many are still finding their way and must figure out what works best for them to earn a profit, he said. That means exploring diverse opportunities. A good example is is when these enterprising individuals use their entrepreneur spirit to raise crops such as cut flowers, hydroponics or direct-market meats.
With these new ventures, today’s young farmer must use technology more than traditional farmers, he said, “and they get a lot from that technology, too.”
Elaine Lidholm, director of communications with the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in Richmond, said these young farmers need the tools necessary to succeed, which means having good science; a good business sense; and the right education, training and experience.
“I think the main goal of all farmers of any age is to be able to make a profit and a decent living by farming,” she said. “That has not changed over the years.”
To do that, Saacke said many young farmers must be willing to try new things that other farmers aren’t doing. To accomplish that may require working other jobs off-farm, or working for other farmers or family farms until they can build up their own farming operations. Eventually, they want their farm to sustain itself without the influx of additional income.
Saacke said he and his staff communicate with about 3,000 growers in the Virginia Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers program. About 500 of those passionate farmers communicate on a regular basis and are searching for useful tools they can try.
“At a younger age, we need to start working to build entrepreneur skills,” he said. “There’s proof that people are making a living at it…but they need to become strong entrepreneurs.”
Growing isn’t all about tilling the soil. Saacke said it is important that young farmers develop a workable business plan. They must learn about general taxes, capital gains taxes and self-employment taxes, which all come with entrepreneurship. They must master marketing skills and find markets where they can sell their produce. He said the markets are constantly changing, so young farmers must stay ahead, pinpoint what markets are available and almost foresee what markets exist in the future.
Wade Bagley, a 20-year-old farmer from Lunenburg County, Virginia, serves as garden manager and community supported agriculture (CSA) manager at Waverly Farms in neighboring Nottoway County, Virginia. With a farming background and a two-year associate’s degree in technical studies and agribusiness from Southside Virginia Community College, he quickly recognized the need for mastering the business side of farming.
As garden and CSA manager, he plans what plants are needed in the garden, how many to grow, what goes into each CSA share every week for about 60 customers, how best to package each share and how to price shares based on content. He also markets and communicates with different stores that Waverly Farms sells to in Richmond.
During a typical day, Bagley manages a work crew of about three to six people. Some of them are volunteers.
“We try to get people connected with the farm and seeing how the food grows,” he said. “We welcome volunteers any time. I’ve enjoyed working with them and showing them how everything works.
“When it comes to farming a lot of people just think you’re out there digging in the dirt, you throw stuff in the ground, and you pick it,” Bagley said. “There’s so much planning that goes into it. All winter long, people think that farmers have the winter off but don’t. As soon as the season ends in December, I’m back to planning, surfing through seed catalogs, working with software and planning what all needs to be planted. There’s the business side of creating budgets and figuring out marginal income based on that. There’s working with efficiency factors, figuring out how much help you need.”
He suggests today’s young farmer must wear many hats – part human resource manager, part business manager, part entrepreneur, part meteorologist, part plant doctor and part pathologist.
“Above all, you’ve got to be willing to work,” he said.
Bagley added that young farmers need that hunger to learn so they can become better at their craft, so they can help produce the food that will feed today’s and tomorrow’s world. That suits him just fine. “I like being a part of the 2 percent of us feeding 100 percent of us,” he said.
Although Bagley always keeps that entrepreneur spirit in mind, he admits that he loves the hands-on approach. “I love the intellectual side of farming,” he said, “but there’s nothing like going out in the field, just digging down, feeling the cool of the dirt and knowing that you’re working with Mother Nature; you’re working with the land; you’re connecting with what you live in every day.”
Bagley suggests that with today’s high-tech society and ease of buying, too many people miss out on what farmers like his dad, granddad and great-granddad accomplished before him. They prided themselves on living off the land and feeding their families and communities. Bagley wants to carry on that heritage and giving attitude.
“We take for granted outside and get spoiled by what we’ve created in the outside world,” he said. “You may go out and faint in the heat, but it’s not until you actually really get out there, get your hands dirty and realize – for me – what an awesome world it is out here.”
He just loves hearing the birds sing, the bees buzz, the breeze blow and the burn of the sun that mixes with the coolness of the soil between his toes or between his fingers. “It’s that connection that I love,” he said. “It’s something about that manual labor mixed with the intellectual concept – the planning and strategizing that farming takes – and the problem-solving that I just love. I love just going to bed being able to look back on what I’ve done during the day. The reward is well worth the labor for me.”
Making it work
Farmers now must be “adaptive, forward-thinking and progressive to make a living,” said Lindy Tucker, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Lunenburg County. “That is not all that different from years ago, but I think the pace at which the world is moving has sped up dramatically; and therefore, young producers today have had to think outside the box that much more often and adapt to changing markets, new technology, economic efficiency and spreading out risk at a much quicker pace.
“A wealth of information is at their fingertips,” she added, “but sorting through that information and applying it to their enterprise has become the new challenge.”
In her view, young farmers in the county that she serves and in all of Southside Virginia will continue to experience more changes on the horizon.
“Young growers are having to look at the bigger picture and plan on the small scale for influence on the bigger picture,” Tucker said. “For instance, crop rotation is pushing past its original, simple application of rotating corn and soybeans to thinking about the whole farm as an ecosystem of sorts, requiring a producer to consider how to integrate their livestock [typically a secondary enterprise] into their long-term, cash-crop planning. Nutrient management is key. New and changing markets and vision is key.
Even with all these unknown challenges, new technology and fast-paced action, young farmers still have a main goal in mind: to continue the family farm tradition while providing for their families the way their fathers, mothers and grandparents did so long ago.
“Though the primary goals here do not differ from the generations before them, the way in which they approach and meet these goals differs greatly,” she said. “Specifically, a produce grower’s primary goals involve ensuring consumer confidence in their product; producing a safe, healthy product; finding the right markets for their skills (retail vs. wholesale time allowances) and the economic sustainability of their farm (making it worthwhile).”
So how can these young farmers make a living on the farm today? “This is a complicated question,” Lidholm said, “and a lot of it depends on where they begin.”
Starting out in farming now is costly. Growers face the high cost of equipment, labor, taxes, regulations and so forth. “One of the impediments to becoming a farmer, if you don’t come from a farm family, is the cost to get into the business,” Lidholm pointed out. “Land is expensive, and most operations require a great deal of infrastructure such as barns, equipment, machinery, animals, fencing, etc. Insurance can be expensive, especially if part of the operation is agritourism, like a pumpkin or berry patch, and the farmer invites the public onto the farm.”