Quiet Revolution – Young People Becoming Farmers

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This is a trend I’ve been watching from a distance. I personally have no interest in going into farming, but my sister and brother-in-law have done just that. And low and behold, it turns out to be a quiet but rising trend. In particular, it involves young people becoming farmers.

It doesn’t come close to qualifying as an economic or cultural revolution, at least not yet. But the concept has been turning up on TV programs (mostly on PBS) and back page stories.

What’s more, the demographics indicate the movement is being driven by young and overwhelmingly college-educated people.

Quiet Revolution – Young People Becoming Farmers
Quiet Revolution – Young People Becoming Farmers

Why would people in that demographic drop out of the organizational world, and move into to something so basic as farming?

Young People Becoming Farmers — The Back-to-the-Land Movement

Let’s start with the bigger picture trend. Data from the US Census Bureau indicates that not only are there fewer farms, but the ones remaining are getting larger. This is continuing a trend of a decreasing number of small, independent farms, in favor of very large corporate farms. It’s a trend that’s been going on for at least a century. There’s no surprise there.

But an article in the Washington Post last November, A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm points to a small but growing trend: ”a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods”.

The small family farm maybe going the way of the buggy whip, but thousands of young people are revisiting the idea.

The Washington Post article notes the following trends:

  • For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 is increasing.
  • An incredible 69% of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.
  • The number of farmers age 25 to 34 grew by 2.2% between 2007 and 2012, a period when other groups of farmers shrunk by double digits.
  • States like California, Nebraska and South Dakota have seen the number of beginning farmers grow by 20% or more.
  • The vast majority of farms are under 50 acres.

But this is also a good time to take a reality break. The article also reports the number of young farmers entering the field isn’t close to enough to replace the number leaving. Between 2007 and 2012, farming added 2,384 farmers between ages 25 and 34 — but lost almost 100,000 between 45 and 54.

Why Young People are Turning to Farming

This is doubtlessly a highly individualistic trend. But certain patterns are emerging. Why would young, college-educated adults forgo or leave the organizational world for an ancient occupation like farming?

It’s almost an article of faith that small farming isn’t a profitable. That is, after all, why millions of small farms have disappeared in favor of very large corporate farms in the past 100+ years. Young, educated people would have to be aware of that reality. But they’re moving forward anyway.

Clearly economics isn’t driving the trend. Or is it?

Here are some factors coming to light:

  • Despite their educations, some young people don’t want to take on the stresses and sacrifices required in the corporate world.
  • In the aftermath of the Financial Meltdown, some people are deciding the money chase isn’t worth it.
  • The search for a simpler life, with more control over time and activities.
  • Having some measure of control over basic sustenance, like food.
  • A desire to bond with nature, in a way that’s impossible in the office-and-cubicle universe.
  • Greater control over one’s economic and occupational destinies.
  • An opportunity to reverse the historic trend toward factory-type production of food, in favor of the small family farm.

These are just a few of the reasons. There are probably dozens more.

“Half-Farmer, Half-X”

I’m getting a sense this is a term we need to become familiar with. Since farming isn’t exactly a wellspring of financial success, it’s often combined with one or more other income sources. This is hardly unusual. At least since World War II, there’s been a growing trend of farmers holding jobs outside the farm. It could be a job at a factory, while managing farming activities in the off hours.

In today’s digital world, it’s probably more doable than ever. For example, you could be half farmer, half blogger. Or half farmer, half online store owner. Or half farmer, half graphic design freelancer. When combined with the Internet, the possibilities are endless.

This point is probably not lost on college-educated Millennials. It might result in a lower paying occupation, but that’s more than offset by the greater control of income, occupational direction, and job satisfaction.

The Half-Farmer, Half-X is a real trend, and probably comes out of Japan.

Charles Hugh Smith came across this interesting (and potentially revolutionary) trend development in Degrowth Solutions: Half-Farmer, Half-X. He included a link to a Youtube video in the TED series by Junko Edahiro – “De” Generation (8 minutes and 25 seconds and well-worth a listen).

(If you’re not familiar with the TED series on Youtube I strongly recommend exploring it. It’s filled with provocative, out-of-the-box solutions that are becoming increasingly relevant in our over-complicated society.)

The “Three De’s”

The prefix “De-“ is finding more uses these days. A common one is de-industrialization. That’s the process of disappearing manufacturing activity and jobs in mature economies, like the US and Europe.

In the video cited above, Ms. Edahiro talks about the trend in Japan by young people toward three “De’s”:

  • “De-ownership” – shifting from owning to sharing, like car-sharing.
  • “De-materialization of happiness” – finding happiness in people and experiences, rather than buying and owning things.
  • “De-materialization of life” – this is where the “half-farmer, half-X” comes into the picture. People are leaving organizations. Not working for money or for moving up a corporate ladder, but moving up in life with greater control of their time and activities.

It’s not surprising this trend would happen in Japan. Japan has frequently been described as a nation of workaholics. That’s the preferred work style, or at least it has been up to this point.

But many young people in Japan are not buying into it. They see what’s happened with their parents and with others. A lifetime of high stress work, slavish devotion to the organization, and a plethora of personal crisis. This includes health problems, emotional distress, and a lack of personal relationships.

As well, it feeds into a high-cost lifestyle that many young people no longer find appealing.

Young people are responding by taking their urban job skills, and moving to farms. There they can lead less expensive lifestyles, produce food, and often continue with some form of urban occupation at a reduced level. This may include self-employment, or telecommuting.

It’s seen as a shock to older Japanese workers, who are still rooted in traditional occupations. But to younger adults, it’s increasingly seen as a viable alternative to a lifestyle they don’t want.

America: Different Motivations, Same Result

Here in America, the trend seems to be moving more slowly. The number of young people moving into farming is only a few thousand per year. But as we know, all trends are led by early adapters. The masses only follow after it looks “safe”.

Human nature being what it is, the likelihood is that the early adapters will succeed against the odds. Even though small farming hasn’t been profitable for several generations, they’ll adapt and make modifications. That is, they’ll find ways to make it profitable.

The Internet, and the number of potential occupations it has produced, is an obvious strategy. It’s similar to the concept of mobile creatives, except it moves the work-/life-style out of the urban area, and onto the farm.

But there’s also the fast-growing trend of “going organic”. The evidence is growing that genetically modified food – the staple of corporate farms – is a major contributor to many chronic health problems. The ultimate rebellion against this trend is to grow your own food.

But urban and suburban consumers are increasingly being drawn toward organic food. This is creating a natural market for small farm produce. And that creates economic opportunities.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the emphasis on small farming here in northern New England. Not only are small farms direct selling their produce to consumers, but it’s increasingly ending up in grocery stores.

Making Small Farming Profitable Again

It’s possible small-scale farming itself may return to profitability. But this trend may be accelerated by highly educated Millennials, and their greater comfort with the Internet. The web after all is probably the biggest advantage for any small producer to peddle their wares to the general market.

Then there’s also the possibility of expanding the entire concept of small farming. For example, it may be possible for someone to buy a small farm, and be Half-Farmer, Half-Bed and Breakfast. Or Half Farmer, Half organic restaurant.

When human ingenuity, necessity and technology come together, magical things are possible.

This is also a good time to remember that it’s not just economics driving this trend.

Many young people are drawn to small farming as an alternative lifestyle. It not only eliminates life in the corporate grind, but also in the big metropolitan areas, where the cost of living is high and the pace of life is uncomfortably fast.

It’s possible that in the pursuit of material success, we’ve lost sight of the fact that control over our lives is an even bigger virtue. Half Farming, Half-X may allows that balance to be restored. After all, a small farm is a much more self-reliant, self-contained home environment than the typical suburban homestead.

My Sister and Brother-in-Law — It’s Not Just Millennials

My sister and brother-in-law moved to a farm five years ago. They’re parents of three Millennials. They recently told me most of the people they know moving to farms are in their 50s and 60s.

That shouldn’t surprise us. People over 50 have become disposable in the corporate world. As I found in my own career evolution as a blogger and freelance blog writer, sometimes the ultimate career solution is to reinvent something entirely new.

Or to return to something entirely old, like farming.

My sister and brother-in-law purchased a 22 acre inactive farm on the western side of New Jersey. It’s an area in an unlikely state that still has a large number of small, independently owned farms.

Both hold “day jobs”, but they’re building the farm in their spare time, and looking to make it their retirement. Their world is half farmer, half day job. In a few years when they retire, it’ll be full-time farmers, and full-time pensioners. It looks like a solid plan.

Like I said, the farm was inactive when they bought it. But they started out with goats. More recently they’ve added chickens. There’s a market for both. They’re planning on adding fruit trees and vegetables. There’s also been discussion of wine grapes.

My sister and brother-in-law are (or were) a pair of certified urbanites. But it’s been interesting to see the transition in both as they’ve adapted to farm life. Both their perspectives and their future plans have changed radically. You hear little of the corporate/government speak of the masses in conventional jobs. Instead, you hear about the farm animals, partnerships with other farmers, and the plans to develop additional acreage.

Moral of the story: change your environment, and you change your whole life.

Do We Dare to Project Where this Trend Will Lead?

I might be exaggerating the trend of young people becoming farmers because of my sister and brother-in-law. But there’s also the possibility this is just the beginning. Some young people who “should be” looking to dig themselves into the corporate world, and some older people who “should be” looking to gracefully retire from it, are apparently choosing to do otherwise.

I’ve long maintained on this website the necessity of creating multiple incomes and finding ways to earn a living outside-the-box. Half-farmer, half-X is a trend I wasn’t even aware of until recently. But it seems to fit.

Farming is basic, and not only increases your control of your life, but also over your food supply. When combined with other occupations, that can increasingly be done remotely, it’s looking like a winning combination.

My suspicion is that the next recession – which could be much worse than the last – will accelerate this trend.

When I found myself virtually unemployable in the middle of the last recession, creating something brand-new was the only viable option – risks be damned.

In fact, risk becomes less of a factor when you have no other choice.

A return to farming, and other basic occupations, may become more prevalent. It not only offers a new occupation, but also gets you out of high-cost metropolitan areas. The combination of the two benefits may prove irresistible to people who have of been spit out by the conventional system, or for those who’ve simply had enough of it.

Have you ever considered the possibility of becoming a farmer? Or perhaps some other “off the wall” occupation, that others believe points to insanity?

( Photo by Tim Green aka atoach )

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6 Responses to Quiet Revolution – Young People Becoming Farmers

  1. Hi Kevin. I live in an agricultural state, as you know, and farming is very big here. Many young people are either taking over the family farm, or others are buying plots of land to farm. Not large acreage, by farming standards, but around 20 acres to start growing their own food and then progressing from there. And like your article states, these are very well-educated people, some younger, some middle age. They like the idea of escaping the corporate world and living a more nature-inspired lifestyle. Now let’s be real here, farming and homesteading is hard work. They work from sun up to sun down, and your work is very dependent on unpredictable weather. And you may or may not make a profit or even much money for yourself. There are a lot of responsibilities that go along with livestock, if you choose that route. Animals must be housed and cared for humanely. But my guess is that money isn’t the motivator; it’s the control of your own life and time and freedom to live how you choose. They’re not interested in the Mcmansions of their parents along with the hefty mortgage. They prefer their paid-cash-for-with-savings, old farmhouse with all its quirks and squeaky floors. They don’t want their children in daycare, they want to do it themselves. Yet, many still have odd jobs on the side, courtesy of the internet, and they get by just fine and are doing well actually. These are masters-plus educated people at wonderful colleges who just have chosen a different lifestyle. I applaud them. And yes, there are more naysayers in the world than not. People told my husband he was crazy when he started his own business. People said I was crazy for moving to Vermont…”there’s nothing up there” I was told. Yet, we’re managing. It’s a wonderful lifestyle if you have the interest and work ethic to do it. It’s not what we do, but I do see the quiet movement where we live towards living more in tune with nature and the seasons. I have no idea where these people get healthcare….but let’s not go there!! 🙂

  2. Hi Bev – Interesting you mentioned healthcare in your last sentence because I was thinking about exactly that as I was writing the article. But then healthcare/health insurance is the National Fly in Everyone’s Ointment. It’s the reason people can’t early retire, start a business, change jobs, downshift, and yes, move to a farm. But somehow they manage. My GUESS is that since a lot of them are younger, they simply forego health insurance. Or take the cheapest plans they can. There are Christian health sharing ministries, that I suspect are filling the void in rural areas where jobs with living wages and health insurance are scarce to begin with. My wife and I aren’t making any exotic plans until we’re both on Medicare and not dependent on marketplace health insurance. But that’s a few years off. Fortunately, we’re in a good place and have no plans to make any major changes.

    But back to farming. From spending Easter weekend with my sister and brother-in-law, I get a strong sense that farmers don’t worry so much about what the rest of the population does. That’s part of the transformation, they get away from the whole suburban mindset, think differently, and create a better quality lifestyle. Last year I found out one of my cousins and his wife have a farm in Vermont. I knew they lived there, but I didn’t know about the farm. Like my sister and brother-in-law, they both have day jobs. It shows you can make it work, even if you were raised as a suburbanite.

    I don’t see myself ever going into farming – though I did spend a lot of time tending our rather large family garden as a kid (and enjoyed it) – but I see the virtues in a more rural lifestyle. We moved from a very large metropolitan area (Atlanta) to a small city in NH, and we love the lifestyle. It’s more exurban than rural, but hey, baby steps, right? That said, I do want to start a garden. There’s something almost spiritual about growing your own food, even if only a little bit of it. Heck, you always know that if you can grow a little, you can scale it up and grow a lot more. Again, baby steps. It takes a lot to untangle ourselves from suburbia.

  3. Yes, it does take time to untangle from suburbia. It took me years, and I still drift back now and then, both physically and mentally. But I know in my heart I don’t want to go back to living in a large city or the suburbs of such. The stress and commute was too much and taking it’s toll on me. This is not to say rural life or farming does not have problems; it certainly does. They’re just different. And again I emphasize, this is for me. It may not work for you or anyone else. We’re not all looking for the same thing. I think many of the farmers I mentioned are on Obamacare, or perhaps they have a military past which covers them, I don’t know. But they seem to enjoy their lifestyle, even with the grueling work. But, it’s as you always say, when you enjoy what you do, it’s not work. And I like what you said about something spiritual in growing your own food. There is a lot of truth in that statement, whether you feel more connected to the earth or just the peace one can find in a garden, I don’t know. But I know it’s there. I’ve felt it.

  4. I think it (the spirituality of growing food) is two things in my experience. 1) Watching the process of digging/planting, nurturing then eating what came out of the ground and did not previously exist. And 2) realizing you can actually produce your own food. In urban/suburban life that connection is lost. Food is the grocery store. Or the golden arches. I’m not even sure a lot of young people fully get that meat comes out of live animals. They’re too disconnected.

    Maybe a third is the realization of how much humanity is still dependent on nature to provide what we need at the deepest levels. I think that’s why a farmer is a lot more likely to believe in God than, say, a corporate executive or a scientist. The farmer sees miracles everyday, while the exec and scientist are insulated from them.

    I still remember the line from Gilligan’s Island, where they’re trying to grow vegetables on the island. The “recipe” is “one part sunshine, one part water, two parts prayer”. Only a farmer could get that.

    When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s it was common for suburban families to have vegetable gardens in the back yard. It was after all, the Depression/WWII generation who dominated suburbia. They better understood the need to be able to grow your own food. That goal doesn’t seem to exist anymore, and a lot of HOA neighborhoods even prohibit growing food on your property. The transition to this sanitized life in the past 40-50 years has been nothing short of shocking.

  5. Good point about the HOA’s. That’s true wherever I have known someone who lives in an HOA. Can’t even plant a tomato!

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