Guess who wants to be a farmer?
One of the world's oldest professions is gaining popularity among America's younger generations, thanks to demand for organic and locally sourced food and a desire to get back to basics.
Mon, Jun 02, 2014 at 12:24 PM
Roy Skeen is a 32-year-old farmer with a degree in history from Yale University.
When he graduated in 2004, he moved to New York to work in investment banking, but he found the work unfulfilling.
After a trip to the Caribbean, he discovered his true calling: farming.
"It exposed me to culture that grows food and lives in one place," he told CNN. "It was pretty simple, but it was nice and I liked it."
Skeen moved to his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, and now runs his own urban farm and sells produce at the local farmer's market. He says the work is hard but satisfying.
Skeen isn't alone in his desire to work the land. In fact, farming has become so popular that last year a farming lifestyle magazine was launched — and it recently won one of the nation's most prestigious print media awards.
"Modern Farmer" beat out "Vanity Fair," "GQ" and "New York Magazine" to win a National Magazine Award.
The appeal of agriculture
More and more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming.
"Young people are viewing agriculture as a great opportunity and saying they want to be a part of it," USDA senior economist Mary Clare Ahearn told The Associated Press.
Enrollment in university agriculture programs has increased in the past decade, and the Future Farmers of America, a youth organization that promotes agricultural education, now boasts nearly 600,000 members — the most it's had since its formation in 1928.
"The agriculture industry needs educated, skilled and passionate people dedicated to sustainability," said Duane Brodt, FFA public relations manager. "Students are answering that call, as evidenced by consistent annual growth in FFA members seen since the 1980s."
Young farmers cite many reasons for pursuing careers in farming: Desk jobs are stifling, they want to be their own boss, and organic and locally grown food has become so popular they feel they can make a decent living.
And that's good news to the USDA.
Analysts predict that the world's population will grow to 9 billion people by 2050, increasing global demand for food. With more than 60 percent of U.S. farmers over the age of 55, young farmers are needed to replace them or the food supply would depend on far fewer people.
"We'd be vulnerable to local economic disruptions, tariffs, attacks on the food supply, really, any disaster you can think of," said Poppy Davis, who coordinates the USDA's programs for beginning farmers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers within the next few years, and Congress has proposed programs to provide young farmers with more USDA support and loan programs.
But farming can be a risky business. Weather extremes like droughts and flooding can destroy a year's worth of crops, and with the nation's farmland averaging $2,140 per acre, start-up costs are high.
Farming also involves long hours of physical labor, and crops keep their own schedule, so for many months out of the year, vacations may be impossible.
But farmers like Jack Gurley, who's been in the organic farming business for nearly 20 years, say the pros outweigh the cons.
"People often say you must work ridiculous hours. I don't even work 40 hours a week. It just so happens that I work 12 hours a day for three or four months a year. But we're potentially finished at the end of October. So I have four months off."
When he's not working the land, Gurley mentors young farmers like Skeen and teaches a new generation how to make a living from farming.
"This was something 80 percent of the population did 100 years ago," Skeen said. "So, it feels like it's coming home, at least for me."
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