There’s a huge chasm, of course, between a social media trend and a committed workforce: Participation among young farmers isn’t yet growing nearly as fast as the aging workers will phase out. The agriculture industry, policymakers and investors have a lot of work to do to draw and retain recruits.
The good news is they can make a strong case to inspire young participants.
Many newcomers to farming will never actually get their hands in the dirt because the industry is undergoing a technological and cultural transformation: 21st century agriculture is becoming more demographically diverse and multidisciplinary — with as much focus on next-level technologies as there is on tilling the soil.
Even as young farmers adopt traditional growing methods like regenerative farming, they’re also turning toward a future in which satellite data is changing where and how food is grown; drones are sowing and spraying fields while robots tend and harvest them; genetic modification is yielding new varieties of climate-resilient crops; cultivated meat labs are growing healthy proteins from animal cells; vertical farms in urban centers are producing fruits and vegetables with radical speed and efficiency; “agrivoltaic” farms are fusing energy and food production.
A growing number of first-generation farmers have begun to enter the field — and I don’t mean “field” literally — because the definition of “farmer” is changing.
Let’s back up a bit and look at the data: According to the census, 80% of farmers younger than 35 have been employed in agriculture for less than a decade. That’s a notable number in an industry in which no less than 96% of farms are multigenerational. It indicates that most of the new entrants are becoming farmers of their own volition — not because they inherited a family legacy. They’re bringing a fresh mindset, unencumbered by old approaches.
In consumer marketing analysis, Gen Zers have been dubbed “food culture disruptors” and the largest drivers of niche markets, including organic and local products and plant-based alternatives. This paradigm-shifting mindset is what they are bringing to the production side of the business of food.
Crucially, they’re helping to diversify an industry that, during the past century, has become overwhelmingly white, male and conservative. The agrarian life once heralded by Thomas Jefferson as the embodiment of American ideals has, over time, hemorrhaged participants. The size of US farms has grown exponentially over the past half century while the number has declined from more than 6 million in 1935 to a third of that today.
African Americans have faced the most severe agricultural losses. There are fewer than 45,000 Black farmers today, down from a peak of 1 million in 1910. A report by the Congressional Research Service highlighted how the lack of diversity in farming has been linked to discriminatory practices by banks and federal agencies that rejected, delayed and minimized loans to Black farmers. As a younger generation of farmers has entered the industry, the number of farmers of color has risen gradually by 8% from 2012 to 2017, while the number of White farmers has declined by 3%. The nonprofit National Young Farmers Coalition surveyed thousands of farmers younger than 40 in 2022 and found that about 80% identify as White — a notably lower percentage than the 95% of White farmers industrywide.
The presence of young women in the field is growing more rapidly. The Census of Agriculture found that the number of female farmers grew by 27%. Policymakers and leaders in agriculture must work harder to encourage more diverse demographics among young farmers with programs designed to alleviate the burden of student loans and to offer more substantial and enduring funding for land acquisition among first-generation farmers and those who are people of color.
Farming needs younger workers because it will take radically new skills to feed humanity in increasingly difficult environmental conditions. Climate change is a defining concern for Gen Z. Agriculture executives must acknowledge that their industry has been a driver of the crisis while also making the case that farming can be a crucial climate solution. Regenerative practices and high-tech tools can transform industrial farmlands into a vast carbon “sponge” that soaks up and sequesters planet-warming gasses.
The upshot is clear: Policymakers and industry leaders have bold reasons to attract the bright minds of the rising generation. They must make it clear to young recruits that they are committed to diversifying demographically, growing sustainably, bridging traditional and high-tech practices, and building a workforce with a great range of skill sets.
Perhaps then, a TikTok trend will become a reality.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
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