The Fate of our Forefarmers

Eroding wisdom in American agriculture and a plan to preserve the knowledge and experiences of our aging farmers.

Aging is not just a popular topic in American agriculture, it’s a UN Global Issue. While the media and the USDA focus solely on finding bodies to replace our graying farmers (who are 57 years-old on average) others, including many of ag publications, are convinced it’s a non-issue.

The reality is, a lot of farmers, particularly operators on small- and medium-sized farms, are approaching (or passing, or long past) retirement without being able to pass on their considerable knowledge and experience. When a knowledgable farmer dies, a library worth of information specific to his land, soil, climate, and way of life, is lost forever. While we’re distracted by graphs and charts on farm demographics, one of our hardest won and most precious agricultural resources is fading away under our noses.

One of the USDA programs that has gotten a lot of the attention in response to the aging issue is the New Farmers program, which connects beginning farmers with resources, from information on new USDA research to farm loans. In my parent’s experience, one of the most valuable resources for a new farmer (even a new farmer who was previously researcher in the agricultural department of an “Aggie” university) isn’t data from agricultural research*. You could learn the broad strokes of running a productive farm from a textbook or a website, but in the real world, farms are not textbook examples.

Every farm has a problem field. Every farm has a low-lying paddock that floods in wet springs. Every farm has a stubborn cow that breaks through the fence no matter how many times you bring it in. For every farm, three or four really bad years means you’ve got to be extra diligent about this or that pest. And every problem field, low-lying paddock, broken fence, series of bad years, and gnarly pest is unique to the farm’s region, soil, crop, climate, neighbors, history, hydrology, geology… you get the idea. If we expect new farmers to take over from the older ones, we have to give them more than a few acres, a stack of research, and a cheap loan.

And it’s more than just the job. Every farmer struggles, mentally and emotionally, with bad years. Every farmer worries. Every farmer has reservations about taking loans. Every farmer wants their family to be happy. Every farmer is struggling to keep a lot of balls in the air, and when you’re dealing with so much, the attentive ear and empathetic heart of someone whose really been there can be the difference between soldiering on and hanging up your hat.

And that’s why we’ve got to find a way to preserve as much knowledge from American farmers as we can. Not as a neat project, not as a obligatory gesture, but for posterity.

Why? Because if a farmer is 57 years old in 2016, he was born in 1959. Tractors had just exceeded the number of horse and mule drawn implements 4 years earlier. He saw the fall of DDT, non-hybrid corn, and hand-picking cotton along with the rise of soybeans, food stamps, and the United Farm Workers. He survived the hyper-inflation of the 197os while feeding more than twice the number of people with every acre of land over the previous decade. He’s navigated drastic changes in new agricultural technology, fought against losing his legacy and community to a corporation or a foreign government, and adjusted to the changing requirements of both the EPA and the environment itself. He weathered international trade treaties and incomprehensible public policy, while feeding four times the amount of people on the same acre of land as when he started. And that’s just what he did before 2000.

Agricultural knowledge has a context. It can’t (and certainly shouldn’t) be too broadly generalized. We’ve been building it since people started farming here, and though this isn’t the first time we’ve lost massive amounts of it (38% of Americans who were involved in farming at the turn of the 20th century has fallen to less than 2%), this may be the most critical loss. Our farmers are the last link we have to the wealth of local and regional farming knowledge, our heritage, and the key to our future.

If we have hopes for a sustainable future where all people are nourished, we need this knowledge. Maybe this would be a good job for the National Young Farmer’s Coalition or the New Farmers program at the USDA. Maybe there’s potential for something like StoryCorp (FarmKnowledgeCorp anyone?), where farmers can sit down with a family member, a co-worker, a friend, or even a fellow farmer to tell their story and share their wisdom and then have the recording be available online. There are a few organizations like Rogue Farm Corp that are attempting similar projects, though more narrowly.

If we’re hoping for any kind of positive future for American food and agriculture, we can’t forget our past. It’s not too late, but if we don’t act soon, we’ll be relearning this wisdom the hard way. Or should I say, the hungry way.

*Particularly because the Land Grant system has been captured by a few major agribusiness companies for decades now. But that’s a story for another post… coming soon.

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