Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes a head count of who is farming the land. The latest census is out and it shows that there’s been a slight uptick in the number of young people getting into farming, but not enough to stop the average age of American farmers from climbing.
That has observers of rural America worrying. Without new blood, the existence of many small communities is at risk. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media has our story.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
And every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes a headcount of who is farming the land. The latest census is out, and it shows that there's been a slight uptake in the number of young people getting into farming but not enough to stop the average age of America's farmers from climbing. That has observers of rural America worrying. Without new blood, the existence of many small communities could be at risk. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media's Grant Gerlock has our story.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: Eric Brockman lives on a sleepy, snow-covered street in the small town of West Point in northeast Nebraska, his hometown. It's Monday, a day off from work, and Brockmann sits on the living room sofa as his two-year-old daughter Olivia stands behind him and combs his hair.
OLIVIA: You have (unintelligible) back here.
GERLOCK: Instead of getting fussed over, Brockmann wishes he was out feeding the pigs or fixing a tractor. Thing is, he doesn't have any pigs or a tractor. Brockman may be a farmer one day. But for now, his job is managing an ethanol plant. It's an hour and a half away in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Brockmann says it's a good job, but not exactly the career he wanted.
ERIC BROCKMANN: Don't get me wrong, I love what I'm doing right now. But what I've always wanted to do is farm. Be in the dirt. All the time.
GERLOCK: Brockmann grew up on the farm. His parents feed hogs and farm 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans outside of West Point. He still helps out around planting and harvest, but he won't be taking over the family business. His dad is just in his 40s and his younger brother Aaron wants to farm too.
BROCKMANN: There isn't a whole lot of farm ground to spread out amongst, you know, three people. Makes it pretty difficult, and to find your own ground is pretty hard.
GERLOCK: That trouble connecting new farmers with the land they need is happening across the country. And it shows when you look at farm demographics. The average farmer was 50 years old in 1978. Preliminary results from 2012 ag census show it's closer to 58 now. Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, says that's up from the previous census.
SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: It's increased by over a year, and that continues a trend that has occurred over the course of the last 20 to 30 years.
GERLOCK: But Vilsack says there are signs of progress.
VILSACK: If you look at young farmers in two categories, those under 25 and those under 35, we've seen actually slight increases. But we need to accelerate that level of increase.
GERLOCK: Farmers under 35 years old only grew by about one percent nationally. Dave Baker helps families pass down their farms at Iowa State University's Beginning Farmer Center. He says the concern isn't that the country will run out of farmers. It's that small towns are losing people. They need young families to regenerate businesses and institutions built by previous generations.
DAVID BAKER: So I look at small rural communities and churches and schools and say, if you're not creating opportunities for young people to join you in your area, you're a terminal community.
GERLOCK: To stay viable, Baker says rural towns need more people like Eric Brockmann. Brockmann lived in Omaha with his wife and five kids before moving to West Point six months ago. He wants to get on the local school board, and he says he's committed to finding a farm, as long as it may take.
BROCKMANN: Keep your name out there. Keep calling. Keep asking around. And if you want to eventually get some ground, you have to be persistent because there's more people out there that are looking for the same thing.
GERLOCK: If rural communities want to stay strong, they'll need more beginners to find their way onto the farm. Brockmann and other prospective farmers are ready to get their hands dirty. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Grant Gerlock in West Point, Nebraska.
HOBSON: And Grant's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.