The average age of a farmer in the United States is 58-years-old. Small family farms that flourished in decades past are continually bought out by corporations. More young people than ever are moving to cities to find work.
As farmers continue to age and retire, an important question emerges: Who will replace them?
There’s no denying that a generational gap in farming exists, but there are communities and organizations that are working hard to ensure that young people take the future of farming into their own hands.
Nationally, the United States Department of Agriculture offers opportunities for students and recent graduates to work in agriculture-related fields, such as science, technology, math, sustainability, management, and business. National Future Farmers of America is an organization that provides resources and support to help students develop agricultural skills.
Locally, Tucson Village Farm is a great place for young people to get hands-on farming education. The farm has seen around 300 kids, ages 2 and up, every week since it broke ground in January 2010.
“Every kid who comes to the farm has hands-on experience and learns what it takes to grow food in this climate,” said Leza Carter, founder and program coordinator of TVF. “The hope is that they can supplement – not everyone has a big backyard, but they can grow things in pots or a small plot in their backyard and supplement their meals with vegetables they grow.”
Carter said that there are many kids who can’t recognize most fruits and vegetables, and that the goal of TVF is to familiarize kids with the food they eat. She said lack of understanding, inability to cook, and reliance on fast and processed foods has contributed to a generation of people that’s more disconnected from food than generations past.
One program at the farm that is inspiring kids from a young age is TYLTH, which stands for Training Youth Leaders Through Horticulture. TYLTH was created by Thom Passe, who first came to Tucson Village Farm as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2010.
TYLTH is a certificate program through which middle and high school students go through a series of 12 modules to learn about compost, planting, and managing their own plot of land on the farm. Passe said that the program gives students the ability to gain a better understanding of all the systems that exist within agriculture and helps them apply scientific concepts with hands-on activities.
“Food production is such a basic thing in our lives and it’s something that generally [you] don’t put a lot of thought into when you’re younger, you just sort of take it for granted,” Passe said. He added that establishing a connection to food early on can add interest and has the ability to enrich young people’s lives.
Young people won’t get involved in farming if they aren’t interested in it. For some people, taking a small step toward an inkling of curiosity is all it takes. That’s what happened to 26-year-old Laurel Goslin of Sleeping Frog Farms, who took a risk and moved to Tucson from Maine five years ago to pursue her passion for food.
“I was just bored and my mom was always really into food, she’s always kind of grown [food] in our backyard,” Goslin said. “I like physical labor and I think it’s important to know the connection [between] where your food comes from, eating it, and the actual work that goes into it. So I guess I kind of just wanted to learn more about that.”
She found an opportunity at Sleeping Frog Farms on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website. WWOOF is a hospitality service that helps facilitate homestays on organic farms. After her four-month internship, she was offered a paid position at Sleeping Frog Farms and has worked there ever since.
Thanks to Goslin’s interest in farming and WWOOF, she was introduced to a new world of opportunity in farming and food. Now, she’s among the next generation of farmers in the United States.
Goslin’s experience working on a farm has given her a new outlook on the future of farming. “It’s interesting because I know there is this huge gap but I’m just so plugged in here that I can kind of see the expansion of it,” Goslin said. “I think education is just a huge thing … talking about it and getting schools involved and starting it at a young age.”
Farming is not what it once was. Who farms, on what types of farms, is changing as the fabric of society evolves toward a more technology-driven world. But, a generational gap in farming does not negate the existence of an up-and-coming group of young people who are passionate about agriculture.
National programs through the USDA and WWOOF and local programs like those at Tucson Village Farm are shining a bright light on the future of farming.
Header image by Steven Meckler.