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Crisis in Rural America: Farm Exodus


Farming is back breaking work. It doesn’t pay well and it is certainly not glamorous, unless of course your name is Eddie Albert, you’re a 60’s sitcom star on the set of Green Acres. Otherwise, to farm is to toil endlessly for little reward, if the reward is not found in the work itself. On top of that, farmers face several challenges on a day to day basis. From more obvious issues such as access to water, weather, and now climate change, to less obvious ones like government regulation and real estate development, the American farmer does not have it easy, and really never has. However, one of the biggest problems the agricultural industry faces today has little to nothing to do with the earth, and everything to do with the fact that the average farmer is almost too old set a fence post.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average age of US farmers has climbed to 58 years old, an unsettling number for any industry. Unfortunately, the decline in the number of young people in farming has been part of a thirty-year trend, with roots long before and, given the current climate of the industry, the trend is showing no signs of abatement.

Why would it? What has changed that would break the trend of this so called Silver Tsunami? The current cultural shift we have witnessed for the last thirty years, thanks in large part to technology, has done nothing and will continue to do nothing to improve the situation. Yes, thanks to technology we all now lead lives of instant gratification. We have high speed modems and lead high speed lives. We don’t want to – or maybe can’t – afford to wait until we get home to check our electronic mail or scroll through the endless threads of Twitter.

Electronic handheld portable devices must be available for immediate access, and we must have them now, or perhaps by Black Friday. And no one under the age of 60 wants to be a farmer. . . Imagine that.

Consider: the early growth stages of a typical tomato plant require 25 to 35 days. Next, the vegetative state requires 20 to 25 days. The flowering stages then takes 20 to 30 days. After that, the fruit formation stage requires 20 to 30 days, and, lastly, the fruit maturation stage requires an additional 15 to 20 days. Bored yet? Multiply that tomato plant by 900 acres. How about now? The point being, is in a world that begs the question, ‘why Lord, why is this page taking so long to load’, would anyone ever expect farming to be a desirable occupation, let alone the youth, who are bound from birth to their technological vices. I appreciate the job sir, I kindly do, but I have several important emails to respond to, and a Skype conference at Noon, so I must ask, do you have wifi in your barn?

Historically, most people have farmed out of necessity. When the government, backed by corporations, took away the necessity, tradition took its place. When mere tradition is all that stands between a young, starry-eyed boy or girl and the wonders of the world, between calloused hands from chopping tobacco and rosey cheeks from drinking wine, between nondescript pastures and big city skylines, which wins? But let’s be fair to the modern era. The kids didn’t raise themselves and the roots of the farm to city migration go all the way back to the enclosure acts.

This thirty year trend seems, more obviously, part of an age-old pattern that can be traced all the way back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. Ever since factory jobs began luring young naive boys away from the hills and into the cities with the promise of better lives and steady pay, farmers have been fighting an uphill battle to keep their sons, and now daughters, from abandoning the plite of acreage, a plight complicated by governments that made land ownership mandatory (see: Enclosure Acts) and pushed previously free farmers into tenuous work relationships or into cities.

These days it’s video games and social media, but just about every major technological advance, all the way back to the model-T and beyond, has worked to drive that era’s young away from the fields, pun intended.

Consider the escape provided by the invention of the automobile, the freedom it provided. Now consider the amount of liberty the internet has brought us. Consider the wealth of information that is now at our fingertips and in our pockets, and the amount of freedom this access to knowledge provides. From the seated position, and with voice activated commands, mind you, we can not only rent a brand new convertible Mustang, but we can purchase tickets for a bus or a train, or an airplane if our destination calls for it. We can scroll through endless occupations based upon skill-set, we can find our soul-mates with a click, and we can instantly utilize an array of satellites floating in outer space to help us navigate some of the most remote places on earth, or to the Yellow Deli. The choice is ours, and that’s part of the problem.

Given all this access and opportunity, who could expect the average age of a farmer to be any lower than 58? Theoretically, a person could learn a few Thai phrases, fly to Bangkok, rent a seat in a crowded bus bound for Kanchanaburi, spend a week at Erawan Waterfalls, then take a bus to Phuket. Once in Phuket, a person could then spend a week soaking up the island sun and sipping Singha. After acquiring a right proper tan, they could, then and only then, rent a small motor bike and drive it back to Bangkok, hike to the top of the Ghost Tower, take a shady cab ride, get on another airplane, and fly twenty something odd hours back to Boulder, and all before a single tomato plant could complete the earliest stage of its growth cycle.

Here in Colorado, the average farmer continues to struggle – for the aforementioned reasons, sure – but many of them are still facing the same challenges their predecessors faced 500 years ago on. It takes a certain kind of individual, no matter where they come from, to put his or her bottom line in the hands of mother nature, when the fruits of modern living beckon, and when mother nature’s track record resembles that of a degenerate gambler (shout out to Norm Macdonald). It sure is a beautiful day in Colorado, and I sure do love being a farmer. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and, oh, no wait, now it’s snowing.

And yet, many younger people do indeed still farm, despite everything. I recently spoke to Jennifer Miller, who manages Miller Farms just North of Boulder. Her grandfather started the business in 1949 and she took over the 1000 acre plot a couple of years ago, when she was still in her early twenties.

“People my age don’t want this life,” she told me. “There’s no money in it.” She went on to explain that between the hard work and low pay, many people simply do not want to be farmers, and that includes four of her seven siblings.

So the question becomes, what is the solution to the problem, or more specifically who is going to grow our food when the average age of farmers inevitably continues to out grow our average life spans?

Let’s start by pointing out that the solutions to this problem are few, and few of the obvious ideas hold traction. We cannot all go back to farming, and growing our own food ourselves, namely because we don’t all live in areas where you can grow or have the available land. Never in known history have a people existed that were more out of touch with their own food and its production than the people alive today. By and large, we have lost all feel for the land, and it is as foreign to us as outter space. Let us be clear that native people worldwide are exempted from this claim. Not that we ever had a solid hold on the soil. Men and nature have clashed endlessly since the dawn of agriculture. But now, as a whole, we have let our ties to the earth unravel completely.

Another idea that gets thrown around frequently is altering the curriculum in schools to promote farming, as is done with electrical work and carpentry, but this doesn’t change the fact that farming is by and large a rural job that provides little to none of the benefits of city life. That’s not to say there isn’t a large swathe of the population craving less connectivity. But how do we get them to pick up a shovel and get outside? Not to mention, we have all seen how effective a school program can be when it is backed by the government. D.A.R.E meet the opioid crisis. Opioid crisis, meet D.A.R.E. Unfortunately most of the obvious ideas equate to polishing silverware on the Titanic.

The way I see it, there is one solution. We simply all sit back and wait for technology to swoop in like something strait out of the mind of Stan Lee, and save us, and as it always has up to this point. We can sit back and pray that the pace with which technology escalates exceeds the pace with which our food supply plummets. We already produce more than we consume, with room to grow, but we need the bodies to do it. Factory farming exists, large agri-business, but we  are in a stalemate with them with regard to food safety, chemical use, and consequential climate change effects.

That may be our best bet, to put our money on the machines. Perhaps drones will one day be able to serve all the same functions as a 58 year old man with arthritis and a bad back, but for the sake of good old fashioned human ingenuity and creativity lets take a look at one other possible option. What if we made farming cool?

know it sounds crazy, but what if we systematically worked together, as a nation, in order to redefine the image of the American Farmer? Could it work? Not that it would be easy or simplistic, but I think it could. Imagine, if you will, an advertising and marketing onslaught of National Football League, prescription drug company, or domestic beer brewery proportions, whose sole purpose was to make people buy the idea that the American farmer is the coolest type of cat on the planet, that the product was feeding the future. There would be commercials, billboards, pop up ads, radio shows, television networks, and life sized cut outs of celebrities. All of which would be promoting the new hip, young, face of the nation: the American farmer.

Can you see it? Dolly Parton for President. Statues of Willie Nelson billboards in Times Square with your favorite celebrities dressed in all denim, dawning pointy boots and artificially worn cattleman hats, set to the backdrop of a summer sun setting over a quiet field. It could be a reality.

We could set all superhero movies in Kansas, enlist Vogue to promote Stetson as the hot new look for winter, summer, spring, and fall, and we could have Joe Rogan start hosting all of his podcasts from inside a decked out barn. If we employed every hip and trendy avenue that exists and gave it a flannel shirt and a pair of dirty coveralls then we may have a shot of making farming cool for the first time since its inception. That’s right. If we could just get Jay-Z and Beyonce to start recording tracks about the trials and tribulations of the everyday farm hand, and get Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart to start teaching people how to actually grow food before they prepare it, then maybe, just maybe, it could work. Actually, now that I think about it, we would just make Snoop Dogg the poster boy for this entire campaign if given the opportunity. The man knows his green, am I right?

Look I understand, it wouldn’t be easy, but that is where we are at with this issue. Like actual tsunamis, this silver one has no simple solution. On top of all the traditional complications associated with farming, now the modern farmer has to contend with the likes of unlimited streaming, facial recognition features, and Lil Uzi Vert, whatever that is (I have no idea and I refuse to Google it). Farming has a lot of PR to do before it reaches that level of cool. Nevertheless, solving this problem before the great grey wave crashes down on land, though it wont be easy, has to be done.

Forgive the levity. A little humor in the face of crisis can be forgiven. There are options, (as pointed out in De La Vaca’s DiverCity article, pg. 10) to safeguard farming.

Even professional farmers, with generations of experience like Jennifer Miller, are unclear on how to alter the course of these waters. Whether we take over the air waves with pro-farming propaganda, or we sit back and wait for drones to learn how to milk cows, is not apparent; one thing Miller is clear about, however, is why she personally continues to draw her living from the soil when the rest of the world has turned to plastics:

“It’s a part of me,” she says. “I watched my parents work hard to have something. And it just isn’t something I want to let go of. We help a lot of people each year through food donations, and during our Fall festival we get to see kids and adults learn where their food comes from. They get to harvest it themselves and take it home with them, and that’s something that is truly special to me and to our family.”

Miller can’t speak for everyone, but that was her takeaway. That was why she did it. Based upon my research, I would wager that if you were to ask any farmer from Boulder to Belfast who was worth their weight in grain, why they continue to rise to the sound of a rooster’s crow while the majority of the world wakes to a ringtone, why they continue to say grace before every meal, why they continue to work to the end of one row and back again, why they continue to ache and sweat, why they continue to farm, they’ll tell you something very similar to Miller’s first words on the subject: “It’s a part of me.” The land, the work, the dream, it’s who I am. Or something along those lines.

Although the future of farming remains unclear I think the moral of the story should be not to fret. History has shown that these things have a way of working themselves out.

When people get hungry they get creative. It’s amazing, the ideas that a growling stomach can inspire, or the lengths that any one person will go to in order to satisfy the pains of starvation.

We human beings are certainly resilient creatures and that is not to be forgotten. Based on that knowledge alone I think it is safe, at least for now, to leave the situation in the hands of the people who are still farming for the right reasons, whose passions and heart can be found in the seeds they sew, and whose connection to the ground takes unequivocal precedence over any trend.