As farmers retire, American small farming replacements drop - only 1.5% of Americans are farmers today

By LISA LIEBERMAN - Capital Press
KINGSBURG, CA - 3/17/02 - Farmers, it seems, are an endangered species.

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,” Schwartz said.

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 farmers.

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 agreements.”

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 important.

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 other country.”


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