Age Gap: Do Millennials Want to Be Farmers?
Words by Junnelle Hogen Photos by Phillip Quinn
Laura and Gerry Berdeen are no strangers to hard work.
The couple, who are in their 60s, rise at dawn to begin all the tasks associated with farm labor — overseeing a rotating staff of seasonal employees, monitoring their large crops of blueberries and strawberries, and arranging for visitors to take their fill.
For 35 years they have owned and operated Eden Valley Farm in the verdant outskirts of Cottage Grove, Oregon, one of the popular tourism stops on the list of self-pick berry farms in the Willamette Valley.
Now, as the couple looks to retire, they hope to find younger counterparts to fill their shoes.
However, their need comes at a time of a cultural shift. The median age of farmers is at an all-time high, and the Berdeens, like many others, are facing the challenge of trying to pass on a legacy when the younger generation is largely unrepresented in farming leadership.
“It’s difficult,” says Gerry Berdeen. “It seems like there’s a lot of people out there, but making the connection is another issue.”
A median age shift
According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census data, conducted and released every five years, the median age of Oregon principal farm operators jumped to 59.6 years old in 2012.
The rising age, although slow, has been ongoing. In the last 30 years, the median age of principal operators in Oregon has risen roughly nine years, nearly a decade of an increased gap. This is counting a vast pool of over 35,000 principal operators in Oregon.
While the pace outmatches the national average, the gradual rise of age in farming operators is also playing out on a national scale. The USDA census data shows the national average is nearing retirement age, at an average of roughly 58 years old, a figure that has risen 7.8 years in the last three decades.
“The USDA has been voicing a concern about the aging population of farmers for several years now,” says Garry Stephenson, the coordinator of the Oregon State University Small Farms Program and director of the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems.
Stephenson recently served four years on a USDA Beginning Farm and Rancher advisory committee, providing recommendations for USDA programs to kickstart the growth of young involvement.
He says one of the more prevalent industry trends is the decline of generational farming.
“There’s the problem of the farmers in the pipeline,” Stephenson says. “Who’s going to step up and take over some of these farms? Because most of this transition is going to happen within multigenerational farm families.”
Recounts of generational splits are often word-of-mouth. But it’s a common concern cited by agriculture experts in the Pacific Northwest. Speaking at a “Farmland Tenure and Access” panel hosted this March at Portland State University, Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski shared how his family fit into the mold.
“I was raised on a farm. My dad purchased the farm in the early 40s,” Malinowski said. “There are three brothers — we all have children, and we figured one of those would want to take over the farm. Not so far as we can tell.”
Jim Johnson, the Land Use and Water Planning Coordinator at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, also fits into this generational shift, although he doesn’t fit into the millennial bracket. His parents, who own a farm in Oregon, are nearing retirement – but instead of keeping the farm in the family, they’re considering selling it to other farmers in the area.
“That type of method makes farms bigger, but also takes farmland off the market for other people,” Johnson says.
Generational and financial decline
With every pro there is a con. According to Johnson, generational shifts provide agriculture land for those who want to start farming yet face a shrinkage in range land available to be converted to agriculture uses.
While the latest USDA census shows that the average acreage of Oregon farms has shrunk in the last three decades, the number of farms has increased to compensate — showing that output is not, as of yet, at risk.
What does seem to be at risk, though, are opportunities for millennials. In cases of multigenerational farm inheritance, often the capital needed to start a farm is not a concern, given the preexistence of land, equipment, and storage facilities provided by the previous generation.
“I know there are a lot of farmers in the South Valley Farmers Network who are able to farm because they inherited land,” says Jules Reynolds, the coordinator of a network, based in Cottage Grove, which connects younger and older farmers.
For the non-generational millennials taking an interest in farming, the lack of capital provides economic difficulties sometimes only time can surmount.
“There’s a phenomenon we’ve been seeing now, which is a change from the 70s and the 80s: Younger people that come from non-farm backgrounds interested in going into farming as a career,” says Stephenson.
Within the Small Farms Program, this disparity in idealism versus financial means becomes apparent early on, according to Stephenson. The program partners with nonprofits with internship programs — one of the more popular programs being known for its stark realism.
“They call the first phase of their training ‘Crashing their dreams,’” Stephenson says. “Everyone comes into it with a very rosy picture of farming. And it’s very, very hard work.”
Stephenson says he tries not to sugarcoat the challenges of stepping into farming, particularly for those without much economic resiliency. “Profitability is a struggle even for the established farms,” he says. “Having to face something like that, where you’re trying to start a business, and you don’t have any infrastructure, and you don’t own land, that’s a lot to deal with.”
Reynolds agrees. “It’s a struggling business because our economy’s not built to support small farms,” she says. “A lot of farmers — even the successful ones — are forced to have jobs on the side, because their markets are small. It’s just kind of a cycle where you can’t get ahead.”
For some new farmers, the struggle is too much to take. One of the more important findings of the 2012 Census of Agriculture was that in just five years, the number of beginning farmers nationwide who have been farming for 10 years or less decreased by 20 percent, an abnormally large turnover rate.
“There are many reasons why a new farm fails, and considering the Great Economic Recession and several severe droughts and floods over the past five years, these may be some of the contributing factors to the loss of these new farms,” wrote the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in a blog recapping key census findings. “It is clear that more needs to be done to grow the next generation of producers.”
A number of nationwide and state efforts have been attempting to counteract the increasingly growing gap. The 2014 Farm Bill was a harbinger of future progress. The bill, which expires in 2018, funded a number of initiatives to help new farmers, including $20 million a year to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program to fund farmer education programs, a young farmer microloan program, and matching investment funds from the USDA for aspiring rancher and farmer bank savings. Other programs, like the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program, have helped protect agricultural land for young and seasoned farmers alike.
Oregon land zoning is also ahead of most states in protecting agricultural land. Often, the struggle is this: as urban areas develop, many states cut into what used to be rural land, and as farmland becomes worth more money, it sells for urban development uses, lost to agriculture forever.
Oregon is one of three states with mandatory urban growth boundaries, restricting the development of farmland outside cities, and along with the Oregon State Legislature establishment of an Exclusive Farm Use zone in 1963, farm lands have received an additional cloaking of legal protection, keeping them available financially and physically for future generations.
“My early findings suggest that Oregon’s farmland protection efforts are indeed helping protect farmland, but they’re not ensuring access by aspiring farmers to farmland or community food systems,” says Portland State University Assistant Professor Megan Horst, at the “Farmland Tenure and Access” panel.
Despite the challenges, regional resources for young farmers are also on the rise. Cottage Grove is one example of a community starting to integrate younger farmers. In late January, Sustainable Cottage Grove helped kickstart an organization for farmers of all ages to meet, assist each other, and in some cases, provide mentorship opportunities to young farmers.
Jules Reynolds, the coordinator, says the network has since grown to encompass 25 farmers who host monthly work parties. “We’ve had some older farmers come to the network with the idea of finding younger farmers to pass off their land too,” Reynolds says.
The OSU Small Farms Program has also expanded its network, with similar results.
Back to beginnings
Because of the increasingly connected community, Gerry and Laura Berdeen, the owners of the Eden Valley Farm, might find a resolution to their quest for young blood. The two were linked with several younger couples through the OSU Small Farms Program, and are planning to slowly transfer ownership, starting with co-management, before they settle down for retirement.
“We realize it might not work out. We’re not obligated to keep the property as a farm,” Gerry Berdeen says. “But I’d like to see it continue. We’ve been told it’s a really good community asset.”
Meanwhile, Reynolds, the coordinator of the South Valley Farmers Network, has a different story to tell, as she contemplates whether she’ll figure into the new tide of farmers. Growing up in the quiet stretches of miles of Iowa cornfields, Reynolds, now 25, dreamed of running her own farm as a child.
“I obviously care about the environment a lot,” Reynolds says. “As I went through school, I started learning about agricultural issues, and it just made me want to learn more.”
In the process of acquiring knowledge, Reynolds’ dream dissipated — or was at least been put on hold — as her visions of rural peace and quiet transmogrified into the realism of the economic and physical struggles modern farmers face.
“I’d love to have a farm someday, but I don’t know if that’s any time soon,” Reynolds says. “I think I came from a very idealistic view. In reality, farmers can’t leave their farm. It’s 365 days a year.”
“Maybe I need to wait.”