Recent thoughts rolling around my head and making me feel listless… statistics gleaned from the Fall 2007 Edible Portland article Help Wanted: Young Farmers

Like the declining bees, breaking up in colony collapse, several signs point to a shifting farm population.

Looking at farmers:

- US farmers are getting older (in fact, more than a quarter of U.S.
farmers are older than 65), because young farmers are getting scarcer.
A mere 5.8% of farmers are now under 35, compared to 16% in 1982.

-federal prison inmates outnumber farmers—an occupation that has now
been removed as a category from the U.S. Population Census (less than
1% of the current population are farmers)

Interestingly, organics and the resurgence of urban farmers markets
may help the focus on smaller scale farming:
18% of organic farmers are under the age of 35, compared to 5.8% in
conventional agriculture.

More highlights from the Fall 2007 Edible Portland article sidebar
(sources: Organic Farming Research Foundation, USDA Agricultural
Census, Oregon Dept of Agriculture):
- Average age of US farmers: 55.3 years
- Average age of US organic farmers: 51 years
- Percentage of US Farmers 65 or older: 16.6% (1978), 26.2% (2002).
- Percentage of US Farmers 35 years or younger: 15.9% (1982), 5.8% (2002)
- Percent increase in average US farm size since 1935: 285%
(1935: 155 acres, 2002: 441 acres)
-Percent reduction in the number of US farms since 1935: 70%
(1935: 6.8 million, 2002: 2.1 million)

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food LifeAnd the 2002 median net income for a US farmer? $15, 848
Not exactly a sweet deal.

Barbara Kingsolver’s recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is in my life also swirled up in these facts. Her tale of a return to agrarian life takes the dream of farming to work into a family scale of producing food to live on year round. If you had the slightest curiosity about how intensive gardening (or family sized farming) could fit into your life, then this book will wet that appetite.

It’s very attractive… having that relationship of edible consequences. I find myself wanting an adult urban form of a 4H club. I want a muddy hand to take mine and show me how to do it too, step by step from the ground up.

The perfectionist in me wants to come full circle, to not only cook what I eat, but to grow it too.


posted October 31st, 2007 at 11:50 am

I dislike my boring job so I have this same fantasy a lot. I have a feeling that in reality, life as a farmer would be really difficult. I think the idea of an adult 4H is great. It would be very telling to get a preview of that life to see if it is truly “a grass is greener” sort of fantasy or not.

Yeah- I’m with you: farming is a stout work schedule. That’s part of what scares me!

There was mention of work-on-a-farm tourism in the Kingsolver book. That might be a good route for us to get a peak in the farming world. I’ll try to dig up more info.


- Mimi
posted October 31st, 2007 at 12:58 pm

I’m always having fantasies of these sort (usually about owning/tending an orchard and garden) Let me recommend two books…

A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell
Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life by Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska.

And while I’m on a roll…You might enjoy Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich. I’m not Jewish, but I found her memoir of learning to keep a kosher kitchen as an adult and spiritual practice fascinating.

Thank you thank you Laura! I am always looking for books to sink my teeth in.


posted November 1st, 2007 at 4:50 am

You can fit farming into your life, regardless of your lifestyle and life cycle, with SPIN-Farming. SPIN is a non-technical, easy to understand and inexpensive to implement farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from land bases under an acre in size. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN therefore removes the 2 big barriers to entry for first generation farmers – they don’t need a lot of land or money. It’s now being practiced by a growing corps of backyard and front lawn farmers throughout the U.S. and Canada who are causing people to not only re-thinking how to farm, but what it means to be a farmer today.

Thanks Roxanne. I’m not familiar with this concept- planning on delving more into it today. Are you yourself farming this way, or just in knowledge of it? Have you purchased the series (It’s a set of instruction modules that one purchases- the whole set looking to be ~$130)?


posted November 1st, 2007 at 5:38 pm

Farming tends to pay badly compared to other jobs because it’s at the bottom end of the economic value chain, along with mining-type jobs. Factory jobs, for example, pay better because they add value to farm products and thus involve products worth more. Information and engineering jobs (except for entertainment-related jobs that everyone wants) pay better still. Yep, utterly and completely unfair.

Of course, those stats are only for the on-the-books laborers, probably a minority. The rest are almost certainly younger and worse-paid. Plenty of farmers just go slowly farther and farther in debt.

Given the unfair realities, I’m surprised anybody farms, but fortunately there are enough to make an easy surplus.

I went to school near a farm, and watched day-in-day-out hard labor in the sun and after it had gone. No farming for me, thank you very much.

- Jon
posted November 1st, 2007 at 6:14 pm

You, my sweetie, the spin concept and the tool lending library down the street seems like a match. Do a I smell a spring project or did I catch the stove on fire again…

Ooo tool library?! I had no idea.

Your hubby has been an inspiration in his lawn-to-garden transformation. Wish he had the time to blog it with harvest reports!

*darn, just heard back and my address doesn’t qualify me for membership with the tool loan people.


- Leslie
posted November 3rd, 2007 at 11:26 am

Do you know about this site? It may be a helpful resource!

thanks Elarael- It’s new to me, I’ll look into it.


- Elarael
posted November 5th, 2007 at 9:29 am

This is my dream, too. Four years ago we bought a rambling ranch-style house in the suburbs. The house needed so much work, but we were drawn to the 2/3 acre it sits on.

We’ve been working on the house and slowly doing work outside to make the land productive. I want to grow *most* of the vegetables and fruit we eat, and I want to grow herbs to help keep us well.

We have a long way to go, and I’m an enthusiastic beginner at it all. I’d love to belong to your adult 4H group.

Exactly! I look forward to hearing tales of progress from your garden plot!


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