On the farm there is a lot of quality time spent with your co-workers, especially at a farm with an intimate setting, such as the one at Duke’s Campus Farm. There is a lot of story exchanging and reminiscing. It is not rare to come out on the other end of a tomato patch (or lettuce patch- depending on the season), baskets full of tomatoes, and feeling as if you have just divulged to your co-worker many of your most profound life ponderings. It is one of the many beautiful realities of working on a farm. On one such day in August, Emily (farm manager) told me a humorous story about an event she had just attended the week before. At this event she was tabling for the farm, and about an hour into the event a pair of older women approached her to ask some questions. The first question: Where is the farmer for the Duke Campus Farm? Emily proceeded to tell the women that she was the farmer. The women politely laughed and then asked again: But really where and who is the farmer for Duke Campus Farm? Confused, Emily said to the women, “No, but really I am the farmer.” The women, apparently displeased with Emily’s responses, said some pleasantries and left. When Emily told me this story, she said, “What did these women expect? A middle-aged man?”
This story made me realize that yes, indeed most people think of farmers as middle-aged, uneducated white men with beer bellies that appear large enough to give birth to a case of PBR. (I do not write this narrative to discriminate against middle-aged white farmers. For one there are a lot of wonderful middle-aged white farmers in the world to which we owe a great amount of gratitude for growing our food. And secondly, a good beer belly is nothing to be ashamed of). My point here is that most people don’t think of Emily Sloss, liberal arts graduate and white woman from the Miami area, when they think of “farmer.”
I write to challenge the way we think of farmers and debunk the stereotypes. If we continue to give credence to farmer stereotypes, particularly negative ones, we will not be able to move forward with our food ethic as a nation. So let us start with debunking Myth #1.
Myth 1: Farmers are Middle-Aged
According to data from the national agricultural census to date 40% of America’s farmers are 55 years of age or older. I dug into this information further to find this table published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002. As you can see in Table 1 the average age of farmers has increased from 51.7 years of age in 1974 to 55.3 years of age in 2002. Additionally, the percentage of farmers (older than 65) has continued to increase, and the percentage of younger farmers (under the age of 35) has decreased. Therefore, rather than having a majority of middle-aged farmers in the United States, in actuality we have a majority of aging farmers.
Although the average age of farmers is increasing overall, there is a small growing contingent of young beginning farmers entering the mix. In 1992, out of worry about the growing number of older farmers, Congress and the USDA created loan programs and Federal/State financing partnerships for beginning farmers and ranchers in the Agricultural Credit Improvement Act. The reason for supporting beginning farmers and ranchers was to support younger people entering into U.S. agriculture. Studies presented to Congress and the USDA showed that beginning farmers and ranchers tended to be younger than established farmers. By supporting beginning farmers, the U.S. would also be supporting younger farmers. After the 1992 Act Congress supported the Farm Security and Rural Infrastructure Act of 2002, which provided payments to beginning farmers participating in conservation. Later in 2008, Congress supported the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, which increased support for beginning farmers and ranchers. The combination of all of these loan programs and grants has aided in bringing in younger, beginning farmers into the U.S. agricultural system over the past decade.
In conclusion, although our farmers are aging, there is hope that the influx of new younger farmers may ensure the security of food production in generations to come.
Myth #2: Farmers are White
In the United States, there has been historically a large contingent of African American farmers. I grew up in a renovated sharecropper house in Stockbridge, Georgia, where 2 miles down the road Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s grandparents, former farmers, are buried. According to a recently aired PBS story, 1 in every 7 farmers in 1920 was black. Unfortunately, that number has decreased in the last several decades, as a result of the unfolding of a series of controversial events. Therefore, to date there are not as many African American farmers, as their once used to be.
However, currently an increasing number of Latinos are getting involved in farming. In order to explain this statement in more detail, it is important to make the distinction between farm operator and farmworker. Farm operators are what most people think of as the “farmer.” Farm operators own the land and usually the farm business. Farmworkers, on the other hand, are the field workers, who are oftentimes working more closely with the land on a day-to-day basis. Are farmworkers any less farmer than their farm operators? I suppose that is a question worth asking yourself. However, they both are “growers.” Without one or the other our food system is non-existent. Now thinking in terms of farmworker, the demographics of farming changes. According to 1995 data from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration 69% of farmworkers in the U.S. were foreign-born. The majority of foreign-born farmworkers came from Mexico. Additionally, farmworkers unlike their respective farm operators were younger in 1995, with approximately two-thirds of the farmworker population under the age of 35. This 1995 data is dated, but it does give a sense of the more current demographic trends in U.S. agriculture. Many Latinos are also entering into farming as primary farm operators. Although I was unable to locate specific statistics addressing this trend, it is important to note that a contingent of Latino farm operators exists in the U.S. as well.
In conclusion, the traditional image of the white middle-aged farmer is not only false, but it is also actively changing as more and more different kinds of poeple are trying to make careers out of growing food.
Myth 3: Farmers are Uneducated
This latter of the myths was the one that encouraged me to write this blog. Having helped Emily on the farm now for 6 months, I have realized that farming takes a lot of smarts. To farm you have to know soil science, microbiology, ecology, chemistry, business, social science, the list goes on and on. Farming also requires knowing hard skills, such as carpentry, forestry, and engineering. The farmer is likely the most underrated person in our society. He or she has to know a little bit of everything! I suppose most farmers cannot quote to you from the literary classics, nor could they calculate the trajectory of a rocket, but they can tell you how to build a greenhouse, how to harness the sun’s light to your advantage, and how to know when your crops need more calcium in the soil. In order to see farming differently, in a new and brighter light, we have to question what types of knowledge we value. If I were to guess, I would say that our society favors the kind of knowledge produced by liberal arts institutions, rather than the kind passed down from generation-to-generation on the farm. There is no harm in valuing liberal arts education. I, for one, am a big proponent. However, we do not have to discard other types of knowledge as less valid. Should we continue to devalue farming knowledge we will be lacking sorely in farmers to grow food for our children and our grandchildren. Already we suffer from a lack of farmers willing to step up and take over the family farm. Until we value farming knowledge again, young people will continue to go to the city after college rather than back to the farm. It is up to us to see them for the intelligent, valued members of society that they are.
With that let us all give thanks to our farmers, white, black, Latino, male, female, old, and young.