Written by Rebekah Dare Guin
Photos by Jenn Morrison
When a sunny classroom full of ambitious kindergartners are asked “What do you want to be when you grow up,” what will they say?
A princess, a superhero, a movie star, a basketball player. Maybe even the president of the United States. But, how many will say that they want to be a farmer? Sure, they know every animal on Old MacDonald’s farm, but what will happen when Old MacDonald is too old to work?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of farmers has been steadily increasing year after year. In 2012, the average age was 58.3, up from 55.3 reported in 2002. Meanwhile, the number of new farming operations is plummeting. Between 2007 and 2012, those numbers fell by 20 percent. Data for the next Census of Agriculture will be collected this year.
Richard Thomas, a second-generation tomato farmer in Burgaw, N.C., said that he is not optimistic about his farm being maintained past his retirement, despite having two grown children. And, he said he is not alone.
“People always leave agriculture and leave the farm, and always keep a little piece in the back of their head like, ‘when I retire I’d like to have a little piece of land,’” he said. “And, it never works out like that.”
Sara Lanier, the co-owner of a cattle farm a few miles away, echoes Thomas and the importance of having a younger generation that is engaged in agriculture.
“I think when you get one generation away from the farm, that is when you lose the land,” she said.
Theories about why people are leaving farming are varied. However, most circulate around the idea that as technology, higher education and numerous career possibilities have become available the prospect of a life of hard physical work has become unappealing. Additional, farming is an economic risk that many young people do not want to take.
“If you have a 9 to 5, you don’t have to worry about the rain to get paid,” Sara Lanier said.
Thomas said that many small farmers are counting on selling the land so they can retire. Ideally, the land would be sold to someone inside the family. But, it is becoming more frequent that the land is being sold to corporate agricultural operations or is snatched up for housing developments and solar fields.
“When somebody is active and works a piece of land, you can tell it,” he said. “After they retire, maybe they rent it. The person who rents the land will use it but will not take care of it like the owner would. Things will start to deteriorate around the edges. Finally, the people who own the land will pass and the heirs will say ‘What in the world are we going to do with this? We don’t live here. We don’t want to live here. We have got to sell it.’”
Thomas said that there was a point when his farm might not have even made it to the second generation. After high school, he got a degree in nuclear engineering at N.C. State University and went to work in Raleigh. One Thanksgiving, he returned home to find his parents talking about selling the land and shutting down. At that moment, his job lost its appeal.
Thomas’ wife, Katie, said if he hadn’t gone back to farming when he did, he might never have had the chance again.
“I personally don’t know anyone who farms — and is doing it halfway successfully — who didn’t have the land in the family already,” she said.
Lanier said that this is due to the overwhelming cost of starting a farming operation. In addition to owning land, a farm needs equipment, the sweat equity of getting it ready to produce, and figuring out how and where to sell the product, which takes more money than most people have on hand.
“It is hard for a young couple to invest in the land and in the equipment and not be guaranteed a return,” Lanier said. “Whereas, if you get a 40-hour-a-week job and do the best that you can, you are going to get a paycheck.”
Sara Lanier and her husband, Buron, said they actively encourage their children to go off, get an education, establish themselves in a career and become financially secure before even thinking about working the family farm. But, they hope that their children will find their own way back to farming and take over after their retirement.
“You don’t do this because you’re looking for money,” Buron Lanier said. “You do this because you love working outdoors and with cattle.”
When the two youngest children, Haley, 24, and Amos, 17, were asked about taking over the family farm full time, they laughed and gave knowing glances at each other.
“That is on Amos,” Haley Brooks said.
Amos said that he knows that he wants to work in agriculture, but he is not sure if he wants to remain in cattle farming long-term. For now, he is getting ready to graduate high school and go to State.
The Laniers said that although their children were expected to help out on the farm, they never wanted them to miss out on other parts of growing up.
Amos and Haley joked about one summer they spent working off the farm and at a summer camp and how their high hopes for adventure made them miss working with cows.
“Cows can’t talk back and can’t argue with you,” Amos said, “but those kids at that camp definitely could.”
Margaret Shelton, an herb farmer in Leland, said that not knowing who would take over was only one of her worries. The farm has been in her family for 200 years, and the home that she uses as her main office was built in 1830. However, as generations have passed and acreage has been split among extended family, piece after piece has been lost to buyouts during hard times or retirement and to the Department of Transportation.
She has watched the city around her creep closer and closer by the year, and bigger populations require more roads and bigger highways. She says she fears the day the DOT will be back for more. She said the last time they came through “they couldn’t have taken a more destructive path” through family lands as it curved right through the middle cutting off fields and removing trees.
She also fears what will be done to the timberlands around her home as chunks of land continue to be bought and sold. She said that as the land becomes abused and developed, it will become a less appealing place for developing farms.
“It is being sold for growing houses instead of growing trees,” she said.
She did try to stay optimistic about the future of her farm, saying that locally grown food and the use of herbs for medicinal reasons has become trendy again to a younger generation.
As this farm-to-table trend has started to spread among millennials, there is a new wave of farmers trying their hand at growing local produce. However, these farms are frequently small and are concentrated around younger population hubs such as university towns.
Emily Madara and Adam Sherwood, two UNC-Chapel Hill alumni who met because of their interest in farm-to-table initiatives, run a farm with a diverse crop about 20 miles outside of Durham in Cedar Grove, NC. They started out working with other local farmers and then renting a plot of land before they decided to start farming for themselves.
They said that starting off was a challenge. They had to take out large loans even when they were renting and had no guarantee that it would have any payoff. They were ready for the hard work, but it took time to adjust to running their own farm.
“In addition to being a farmer, you are a businessman and a part-time mechanic and a part-time plumber and a part-time electrician,” Sherwood said.
“You end up learning by making some mistakes and trying not to make them again,” Madara added.
One day they hope to have a family of their own to share the farm with and to pass their love of the land and sustainable living onto the next generation. Madara said she is hopeful that the average age of farmers will go back down and that new farms like theirs will start to develop to fill the gap of generational farms of the past.
“The way that we are farming is not identical to the way they were,” she said. “As it changes, different people will step into those roles. …These ideas aren’t new. This is how farming was approached for a long time.”