Fresh & Local
The Growing Number of Young Farmers
Column #17, Published Jan 13th, 2012

The number of farmers in the United States has been plunging over the last 100 years. In the 1890 census, forty-percent of people listed their occupation as farming. In 1990, that percentage was less than 2%, and as the total number of farmers has declined, their average age has been rising. The average age of farmers in the U.S. has been above 50 years now for more than twenty years.

Just before Christmas, my brother-in-law sent me the link to an Associated Press article written by Dinesh Ramde and titled, “More Young People See Opportunity in Farming.” When was the last time you saw the words “young people,” “opportunity” and “farming” all together in the same sentence? My guess is probably never.

It is worth quoting from the beginning of this article.

“A Wisconsin factory worker worried about layoffs became a dairy farmer. An employee at a Minnesota nonprofit found an escape from her cubicle by buying a vegetable farm. A nuclear engineer tired of office bureaucracy decided to get into cattle ranching in Texas.

“While fresh demographic information on U.S. farmers won’t be available until after the next agricultural census is done next year, there are signs more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming: Enrollment in university agriculture programs has increased, as has interest in farmer-training programs.

“Young people are turning up at farmers [sic] markets and are blogging, tweeting and promoting their agricultural endeavors through social media.

“The young entrepreneurs typically cite two reasons for going into farming: Many find the corporate world stifling and see no point in sticking it out when there’s little job security; and demand for locally grown and organic foods has been strong enough that even in the downturn they feel confident they can sell their products.”

The inflow of people into farming is a big change, and there is a lot in those paragraphs.

I’ve said before that interest in locally grown food is growing and here to stay. This article concurs that there is an increasing demand for locally grown and organic foods.

At the same time there is a growing disenchantment with corporate life. Some of that is undoubtedly frustration with the poor job market and uncertainly over layoffs. But I think there is more to it than that.

Po Bronson in his book, “What Should I Do with My Life?” says, “People who have been through a lot reported that they changed their life, or got clarity when they became conscious of what kind of person a certain job/industry/lifestyle was turning them into. So the relevant question is not what you will do, but who you will become.”

It would appear that there are a lot of people that are uncomfortable with who they have become.

Bronson also says that business is a tool to support what you believe in. Fresh and local food is something that a lot of people feel passionate about.

Put these trends all together, and a picture begins to emerge. No matter how you feel about the fresh and local food movement, it is reversing a long-term trend and bringing many new people into agriculture.

There are some interesting stories of local people who have jumped into the locally grown food business. I will share some of those stories in upcoming weeks.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at