As farmers retire, American small
farming replacements drop - only 1.5% of Americans are farmers
By LISA LIEBERMAN -
KINGSBURG, CA - 3/17/02 - Farmers, it seems, are an endangered
At the turn of the 20th century, most people made their living
from farming. Now only 1.5 percent of Americans are farmers.
This percentage is likely to shrink even further as farmers get
older with fewer younger farmers replacing them. Between
1987 and 1997, the number of farm owner-operators 34 years
old and younger declined by an average of 50 percent.
During the same time, the number of farm owner-operators
dropped by 11 percent, said Alan Kasparian of California FarmLink
in Kingsburg. California FarmLink, a private nonprofit
organization based in Sebastopol, is dedicated to perpetuating the
existence of small family farms in California.
“Thirty percent of the people in farming are over 65,”
Kasparian said. “Younger farmers are declining by 50 percent.
With an aging farm population and a declining younger population
getting into farming, the
question is what’s going to happen to farming?”
The question is a dilemma not only for farm families in the
Central California Valley, but also for the valley’s economy,
which relies on agriculture for more than 30 percent of its jobs.
Many third- and fourth-generation farmers are finding their
children simply aren’t interested in taking over family farming
operations, said Steve Schwartz, executive director of FarmLink.
“For some of these farmers, it would just break their hearts
to see their land go out of production or into development,”
While FarmLink can help with the legal logistics in
passing farmland from one generation to another, FarmLink also has
a computerized database that matches retiring with aspiring
Aspiring farmers fill out surveys about what type of land
they’re looking for and retiring farmers give information about
their crops and the demographics of their land.
“The more people we have who fill out the surveys, the
greater the opportunity there is for a link,” Kasparian said.
With commodity prices so low, many older farmers feel pressured
into selling their land to urban interests or to larger farming
corporations or even fallowing their land.
Large corporate farms
often have an advantage over small family farmers in buying up
farmland, since they often have more capital and legal
expertise in business planning.
To give small family farmers a leg up, FarmLink also helps link
them with business consultants and financial planners to get free
or inexpensive advice.
“This puts them in a better position to enter legal
While small family
farms have been the backbone of California culture in the Central
Valley as well as its economic mainstay, there’s another reason
why the public should be concerned about keeping small family
farmers in business, Kasparian said.
Although many produce buyers will buy fruit and vegetables
overseas because of lower wholesale prices, it’s important to
make sure the bulk food supply is produced domestically.
“Especially in this
post “9-11” era where we worry about the safety of our food,
the issue of domestically grown or foreign grown food is
important. We don’t want to be held hostage for our food supply
like we are with oil and our energy by some foreign countries that
monopolize the market and pretty much charge us what they want
to,” Kasparian said.
Keeping the food supply domestic as well as in the hands of
small family farmers vs. just a few corporations is also
When small farmers go out of business and larger corporate
farms take over, there’s less competition and more of a chance
consumers will see food prices increase, Kasparian said.
“We have some of the cheapest food in the world. What we
spend on food is less than what people pay for food in almost any