Digital Harvest: Plugging in the Next Generation of Farmers

Farmers are getting older, farms are getting bigger, and there are fundamental differences between the experience of young urban farmers and young rural farmers. What makes young farmers — rural and urban alike — similar may also be the key to their collective success: aptitude towards technology and prospects of a career in a world where digital is critical. A federally-hosted 21st-century digital farming solution could help connect young people to rural farming opportunities, provide access to capital and high-value markets to rural farmers, and support the prevalence of small sustainable farming across America.

Lessons from Rural Farming Trends

Overall, farmers are getting older. Fewer new farmers are getting into business, and this is driving the average age up. “Beginning farmers” — who tend to be younger than established farmers — decreased by 20% between 2007 and 2012 which dovetailed the 30-year trend in the rise of average farmer age. Beginning farmers on small farms (under 50 acres) are vanishing even faster: The number of small, beginning farmers has dwindled by 28% from 2007 to 2012. This indicates complex and geographically dispersed trends in farmer age, farm size, and farm location.

How does this break down geographically? The South has the largest percentage of small, beginning farmers. Northeastern and coastal states also tend to play host to first-time farmers relative to the Midwest, where farms are larger and beginning farmers are more sparse. Midwestern operations tend to focus on grain, which is correlated with higher acreage.

The upshot of this complexity is that new farmers who start their own farms tend to start smaller ones, and these smaller farms tend to be most common in the South and Northeast. Though there are plenty of young farmers in the Midwest — more than most other regions — perhaps they are more likely to take over an existing large-scale operation rather than starting their own farm.

Lessons from Semi-Urban Farming Trends

In general, farms are getting bigger. But again, there are geographical nuances. Midwestern and Western farms tend to be larger and more rural. It is in the more semi-urban pockets of the country that small farms and local food markets have sprouted.

There has been recent (2007–2012) growth in local farming and selling in the Northeast, very northern Midwest, West Coast and other urbanized pockets. Local food sales, which are driven by farmers’ markets, regional food hubs, and intermediated channels, increased at large from 2007–2012, with intermediated sales making the most substantial jump. These regions are more urban and semi-urban, allowing for more robust, differentiated local food economies, where intermediated channels and food hubs can fetch higher prices for farmers. The basic assumption is that the closer the farmer is to the customer, the fewer middlemen there are and the more money the farmer can make off of her or his produce.

By circumstance if not by design, many of these intermediated channels select for small-scale, sustainable farms: food hubs, for instance, often demand higher sustainability standards. That is, these farms tend to use fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

But what is remarkable about this growth in local food markets is that local farming does not have to mean urban farming. While direct-to-consumer farming (which selects for semi-urban farms) has recently slowed down, direct food sales to public institutions around the country have skyrocketed. School districts with farm-to-school programs grew by 430% between 2006 and 2014. Trends indicate that rural farmers likely have ample opportunities to capture the local farming movement through intermediated channels.

Opportunities for Young Farmers in Rural Locales

With these intermediated markets, farmers do not need massive bases of individual consumers to be able to maintain small, sustainable farms. So going small may hold promise for rural farmers just the same as semi-urban farmers. There’s one more factor the mix of spreading semi-urban farming trends to rural areas: sustainability.

It turns out that young, beginning farmers are more likely run sustainable farms. If schools, local food hubs, and governments bought sustainable goods from small farmers, the profit model would be in place for young farmers to start their own farms even in rural areas. This is a big dependency that depends on small policy shifts for school cafeterias and jails. But public sector buyers have a great impact in intermediated market revenue for small farmers.

Supposing that the customer base were in place, the biggest challenge is connecting young farmers in rural areas to start-up capital. 78% of farmers indicated “lack of capital” as the top barrier to young and beginning farmers.

The second challenge for prospective young local farmers is scaling up to meet local demand. This requires farm management tools that can increase production, decrease cost, decrease waste, and increase efficiency (a form of sustainability). Most large farms have these tools and the data to back them up, but smaller farmers cannot afford them.

The answer? We propose a government-hosted digital farming platform.

Building Off of the USDA’s Progress

The USDA already offers new farmers centralized access to information — The New and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers (NBFRs) website — along with several management applications. With the “Discovery Tool” search engine, new farmers can pinpoint federal grants and online agricultural applications, along with business advice and even tax advice. The USDA’s NBFR site walks users through the process of building a successful farm step-by-step, providing links to the Small Business Administration. The site even provides risk management guidance.

But the site relies upon the ability to relay existing resources to new farmers, rather than providing a dynamic tool that allows young farmers to crowd-source their own insights, build their own business profile, and engage with their customers. The USDA’s website, in short, has static resources, rather than dynamic, personalized content. As a result, the NBFR website does not effectively allow rural young farmers to start their own farms and market their goods to local buyers.

The type of tool we recommend would have several components:

  • Localized data on buying preferences by customers, both individual and institutional (restaurants, schools, hospitals, prisons)
  • Dynamic data processing to assess productivity and increase production in order to scale to local demand
  • Customer relationship management tools that can manage sales and increase profits in the local community
  • Social, personalized, interactive user experiences that could help generate a young rural farming movement (trending farming areas, trending crops, etc.)

The Digital Platform

The federal government could drive expansion of the young farming movement beyond urban locales by offering a mobile, digital platform of farm management tools. This government-hosted tool would house resources, personalized profiles, applications, and most importantly, data. This would spur the attractiveness and economic viability of small, rural farms to the educated, digitally savvy new generation of rural entrepreneurs.

With digital farm applications bolstering efficiency of large scale farms, the question remains: Why and how would small-scale, young rural farmers similarly climb the digital efficiency curve?

Deloitte believes that young farmers have an opportunity to seize upon digital farming innovations and bring small farming success from urban to rural areas. We also believe that young farmers would more successfully engage in rural farming and take greater advantage of USDA programs if they had access to digital and mobile tools provided by the USDA, including the below:

  • Digitized and mobile access to the suite of USDA programs available to support rural farm entrepreneurialism and management; and
  • A “hub” for accessing the wide range of digital farming apps available for farming data management (weather, soil, water, fertilizer, etc.); and farm business management tools (buyer location, salesforce management, marketing, workforce management).

What supports the argument that digital tools would be adopted by small, young, rural farmers? There is evidence that young farmers — especially those with high education levels — would adopt new technologies.

  • Young farmers are more and more likely to be highly educated, and thus have more potential to adopt digital solutions. Young farmers are increasingly likely to have attended a four-year college (currently 34.3%), and studies show that rural individuals with higher education levels and higher incomes did not have significantly lower internet adoption rates.
  • Younger people use internet and mobile technology at far higher rates than older people. A 2016 Pew Research report showed that internet use was 99% among 18–29-year-olds, relative to only 89% among 50–64-year-olds and 67% among those 65 and over. The same study indicated that 92% of 18–29-year olds own smartphones, relative to only 74% of 50–64-year-olds and 42% of those 65 and over.

Deloitte has the tools and experience to implement and operationalize a digital platform for large user bases. The firm has helped agencies across various sectors with similar projects, and is confident in its ability to demonstrate the same impact at USDA.

Below are several examples of the types of applications that could be offered on the USDA NBFR platform:

  • Industry-standard digital farming apps: The USDA could meet industry standards by offering yield calculations/estimations, weather and mapping tools, Growing Degree Unit (GDU) calculators, soil chemistry tools (nutrient and fertilizer levels, disease, weed, and pest tracking (diseased leaf identification, weed identification, pest identification, etc.), harvest loss calculators, risk and insurance calculators, and precision water and precipitation monitoring
  • A platform for knowledge sharing: 74% of young and beginning farmers ranked apprenticeships as one of the most valuable programs, demonstrating the importance of knowledge and skill-sharing. A digital knowledge sharing platform would expand upon these opportunities, enabling young and beginning farmers to tap into a nationwide pool of peers and mentors. These individuals would serve as a valuable resource in addressing questions and concerns about entering the farming industry, as well as providing support and troubleshooting as they begin their farming business.
  • A property search tool: Access to land was identified by 68% of young and beginning farmers as one of their top barriers faced in entering the agriculture profession. The creation of an online search tool to bring together sellers with potential buyers provides the opportunity to support those looking to enter the market and keep existing land in agricultural production.
  • An external funding locator: Lack of capital is repeatedly identified as a top barrier to beginning farmers. A wide range of external grants and seed funding exists for small and sustainable farmers, providing much needed capital with little cost to taxpayers — an ideal situation. The USDA can encourage these advantageous connections by creating a database where grants can be listed by organizations and viewed by those trying to enter the agricultural industry. This can be taken a step further with an integrated application platform for use by external organization.
  • A young farmer recruitment tool: If young, educated farmers successfully take over their own farms, they will need tools to recruit other farmers like them. A feature that targets students at institutions with agriculture programs would be an effective way to reinforce a movement towards young, educated farmers in rural areas. Institutions located through the recruitment feature on the USDA NBFR platform could then offer in-class information sessions, webinars, and virtual communications spotlighting young farmers looking for employees.
  • Social feeds and crowdsourcing to determine additional solutions: Unlike centralized postings on USDA’s current website, which are labor-intensive for the USDA and are not updated frequently, social media and crowdsourcing leverages the power of connectional intelligence to provide insightful perspectives and innovative solutions. Hashtags, user profiles, newsfeeds, viral posts — the USDA could spread the movement of young farmers from rural areas to urban areas by offering an application to young and beginning farmers.

There is no way to make farming clickable or reduce it to something that fits into your pocket. And if there were to be a silver-bullet app for efficient farming, it is probably on its way from the start-up crucible of Silicon Valley. There is, however, a way to harness the power of digital farming tools to enhance the viability of small, sustainable farms in rural areas and draw more young people into farming: A USDA NBFR platform.

William Plews-Ogan, Steve Watkins and Blain Anderson contributed to this piece.