27. The Numbers

I’m reading a pamphlet this morning published by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Chloe grabbed every possible applicable piece of literature as she was visiting the county extension office last week with her school kids in hopes I could find something helpful. Truthfully, I had already seen and read most of what she gave me. But the 2017-2018 Virginia Agriculture Facts and Figures was new, so I read through it. On the back panel, four of the nine facts stood out as stark truths:

  1. The typical Virginia farmer is 59.5 years old. 36% of farmers are 65 or older.

  2. Approximately 17% of Virginia’s primary farm operators are female.

  3. In the 1960s, one farmer supplied food for 25.8 people in the US and abroad. Today, one farmer supplies for 155 people in the US and abroad.

  4. Less than 16 cents of every consumer dollar spent on food actually goes to the farmer.

Nature's Health, Nelson, BC

It’s hard to rank which of these facts made my stomach churn more. I think this is an excellent opportunity, with some wet and cold weather coming over the next few days, for me to break down each of these figures as I understand them. Because these facts are at the heart of why I created Garden Variety Harvests and how I think my little company can do its part to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

Fact one: farmers are old. Of course, the older we all get the more we realize that the word “old” is a relative term. But as a workforce, American farmers are averaging right around “retirement age”. For contrast, let’s look at a few other random lines of work and see how they compare: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age for an American EMT is 34. The average barber is about 40. Even a surgeon, with many years of post-secondary school under his belt, is likely to be under age 47. There are a couple reasons I think farmers are so old. The first has to do with the fluctuation of income from year to year over a farming career. Those peaks and valleys often mean planning for retirement falls on the back burner, and many farmers are forced to stay working longer than they had ever planned to. The second reason I can figure is that young people simply don’t want to farm. Whether its because they don’t want to work that hard, they don’t think they can get rich, or they don’t see it as important, millennials are just not farming. Efforts like the Young Farmers Coalition are doing their darndest to change that fact, and it’s going to take conscious effort from our policy makers and a re-imagining of our food paradigm to stem that tide. Many of my best mentors thus far on this mission to start a farm have been north of 60 with the wisdom of decades of growing to impart. I, for one, am doing my best to absorb their knowledge before a generation of trial and error is forgotten.

I promise these ladies would out pick you in the strawberry fields!

Fact two: women are left out. 17% is a pathetic number, truly. I can’t be the only one who has noticed that when women aren’t involved, just about anything has a lesser chance of going well. It reminds me of those 8th grade birthday parties where our parents wouldn’t let the girls sleep over. Little did they know, we got into way more questionable mischief without the girls than we would have with them. There are a lot of social and patriarchal reasons why women tend not to be in the field, but it’s not for lack of interest. I would bet that the majority of gardeners in the US are women. And most of the volunteers I worked with this summer in BC were female and all were up to the task of a hard day’s work. I think the farming industry suffers significantly because it doesn’t have the perspective offered by the nurturing, creative spirit that women often provide. We have to do a better job of making the misses feel welcome in the pastures and fields. Because the club of men that’s been steering the agricultural ship in this country over the last couple generations has run it aground.

The smaller the farm, the less need for mechanized equipment...

Fact three: the burden of feeding the ever-expanding population falls on fewer and fewer producers. The cause for this trend is two fold: first, we’ve been lied to about our diets and most Americans are eating too much of the wrong things. Second, the increased capabilities of mechanized equipment and petroleum based fertilizers make it easier to produce more of those wrong things. But we’re starting to see the results of this dynamic and it’s clear the candle is being burned from both ends. Chronic disease is the new normal and I believe diet is the prime cause for that. And the warming globe is increasingly covered in tired, depleted soils because chemical salts and herbicides are a temporary solution with far reaching consequences. Farmers must rededicate to the principles of nurturing the soil rather than feeding the plant; building defenses instead of eradicating competition. And consumers must recognize the virtues of healthy foods and be willing to pay a fair price for them. This will go a long way toward relieving the pressure on the farmer to grow ever larger and allow more room in the marketplace for smaller artisan producers.

Fact four: farmed products go through too many middlemen before getting to the consumer, and the financial well being of the farmer suffers. We’ve gotten far too used to the concept of the supermarket grocery store. It’s a fine idea for dry goods and household needs. But the produce section is totally counter to the idea of freshness. They source produce from thousands of miles away when often there are fruit and vegetable farmers within a few miles that would be more than willing to produce a similar product for a competitive price. And as a consumer the quality of every meal would be increased because freshness truly is king. The moment a tomato is picked off the vine, still green as it may be, it begins to loose flavor and nutritional value. By the time it gets to the store shelf 10 days later it may be red, but it’s hardly the same as the local product that spends minutes in transit from field to customer. And that goes for virtually every fresh produce item at the store. We all have to recognize as consumers that it’s not just good for the local economy or Joe farmer down the road if we buy from his farmstand; that’s a mutually beneficial choice we can make with our dollar that will have tangible effects on how our food tastes and how our bodies are nurtured by it.

Work till you collapse, and trust that the grass will catch you

All of these daunting facts can really get a new farmer down. But I must say that I am very grateful for a few inventive and insightful voices in the modern farming community. People like JM Fortier, Curtis Stone, and Eliot Coleman have taught me through their books, videos and social media that there is hope for farms that want to be better, not necessarily bigger. Their enterprises show a true resistance to the infinite growth principle, which I don’t believe in and I blame for the environmentally-ignorant and quality-impaired state of our food economy.

I didn’t start today knowing I would end up climbing way up on this soap-box. But after reading this pamphlet that was designed to promote the Virginia conventional farming industry, I couldn’t help but feel that they had missed the mark. I’m inspired to carve a path by which I can learn how we can do better than the story these numbers are telling. In working to build my urban farming business, I am striving to re-localize my community and put fresh, nutritious food in the hands of those who need and deserve it. And I’m partnering with some exciting non-profits toward those goals; so I know I’m not the only one out here that feels this way. It’s going to take creativity, preparation, adaptation and timely (not overpowering) precipitation.

Happy horses on pasture in the Tetons