City Region Food Systems – Part II – Who Will Farm?
This post is written by Michael W. Hamm: C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture - Michigan State University and Director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. Mike is also a Visiting Fellow of Mansfield College and the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, and an FCRN network member.
When I was in Rutgers University’s Nutritional Sciences Department I worked with a group of students and faculty to develop the Cook College Student Organic Farm (founded in 1993 and still going strong as the Student Sustainable Farm at Rutgers). Over its first eight years about forty students spent a summer on intensive farm work. I think three are farming today. Many others came to the farm thinking they wanted to farm and realized it wasn’t for them. None of them grew up on farms and often had romantic ideas of growing a diversity of vegetables for community supported agriculture shareholders. I have fond memories and a great deal of respect for all of them – in the end they each followed their passions - many are doing terrific food related work across the globe. I am sure all have an appreciation for the hard work of farming and for those who grow our food. And it begs the question - who will be the farmers of tomorrow? How will they gain access to farmland? How will they gain the skills to farm in environmentally friendly ways and continuously improve as new practices emerge? Where will they learn to manage a farm business in a profitable and sustainable way – that is in a manner that provides a good livelihood for them and their families, produces significant amounts of food, and improves the resource base?
In the U.S. we import more total food per capita (227 pounds per person in 1989 – 358 pounds/person in 2009) and fruits/vegetables each year. These imports primarily represent food diversification and off-season fruit and vegetable access. The U.S. has had an increasing fruit/vegetable trade deficit since the mid-90’s with the largest share coming from Mexico (36% of total produce imports in 2011) – a country with a projected 30 million population increase over the next thirty-five years. We should ask (at least) two questions – do we continue down a road of fruit/vegetable trade deficits from countries with growing populations and fresh water sufficiency challenges? Put another way, is the U.S. model of food sourcing scalable to an urbanized world of 9 billion? What happens if the U.S. eater shifts consumption to a healthier diet with increased fruit/vegetable consumption and less meat/total calories? I think these questions argue against a business as usual approach in the 21st century.
It is estimated there will be two urban for every rural resident in 2050. An increasingly urbanized globe needs to feed itself, yet there will be fewer people living in those rural areas that provide the bulk of food. How do we (as a global community) insure food security for an increasingly urban population? How do we move from coerced resilience, that is resilience driven by human inputs, to resilience that is driven by the ecosystems in which food production occurs?
Here I will focus on one question – who will grow the U.S. population’s food in 2050? One option is expanding food imports, possibly to the detriment of urban consumers in those exporting countries. Another option is producing a greater share within our borders and reducing pressure on other countries’ food production. Can we produce it closer to the point of consumption and minimize fresh water migration? Can we do this not as a reactionary or nationalistic response to global trade but as a conscious strategy for resiliency improvement and global food security cooperation?
From the earliest period of America’s post-Columbus development, generations of new farmers came predominantly from two populations: offspring of existing farmers and immigrants. Times change and we are confronting a period when the average age of farmers continues to rise – in 1950 it was under 50 and in 2012 over 58 – largely driven by a steady decline in the number of farmers under forty-five (see adjacent figure for shift in farmers age; source: Agricultural Insights). Today new farmers are not coming from traditional sources in great numbers and it is increasingly difficult to start. This implies the U.S. will increasingly be a nation of very large farms and hobby farms – with little in between. There is another route. The U.S. can be a nation (and part of a global community) that values and honors farmers as important forms of business, as natural resource stewards, and as key to a nation’s security and public health. This requires a conscious strategy and policy framework that maximizes the probability of farm success. Also, we should recognize the 4 F’s necessary to generate a healthy, productive, and sustainable food supply: farmers, farmland, farming, and farms. I’ll talk about each of these in turn.
The first ‘F’ – farmers – begs the question: where will they come from? Current experience suggests three types of life histories for future U.S. farmers:
- Generational farmers – those who grew up on a U.S. farm, have the ‘common sense of farming’ and have lived the season’s cycles. Many of these will need and want to do things differently than their parents – be it different production strategies, different products, and/or different markets.
- New-generation farmers – those without a generational tie to farming. These may be young people out of high school or college with passion but little experience. They may be people switching careers. Many of the inherent advantages of generational farmers (e.g. land access, connection to farm lending institutions, equipment inventory, knowledge of farming) are typically absent.
- Immigrant farmers – these often come to the U.S. as migrant farmworkers or refugees. They typically have a history of farming in their home country. Migrant farmworkers have a history with U.S. agriculture. They have some of the advantages of generational farmers- a ‘common sense of farming’ having lived the season’s cycles – but also many of the new-generation farmer disadvantages – lack of land, lack of capital access, lack of markets. There are also often language barriers as well as distrust of institutions.
It is unlikely that sufficient farmers will come from generational farmers to meet the nation’s food needs (not to mention fiber and fuel) – unless the U.S. is to be a nation of only increasingly larger farms.
There are many advocating urban production as the urban food solution as well as a vehicle for improving food sovereignty and justice. While I agree with the general tenor around urban food production, in many cities I don’t think the quantities needed make this a broad, universally replicable solution. Nor do I think that indoor production with 100% artificial lighting systems is a sustainable solution. The bulk of our food will by necessity come from the peri-urban and rural landscape. (See – City Region Food Systems-Part I for more on this)
The second ‘F’, farmland, is a prerequisite for farmers to farm. Yet among new-generation and immigrant farmers this is often a challenge. Strategies that provide long-term access to publicly/privately held land as well as farm succession strategies between non-related individuals are needed. With the right strategies and policies in place, farmland for future farmers could come from a range of sources:
- Publicly-held land with long term leases (for example held by a State Dept. of Natural Resources),
- Privately-held land with long term leases (for example held by a land trust and leased to a farmer),
- Farmer transition schemes that move land from retiring farmers to new-entry farmers, and
- Rural-zoned houses with acreage (for example in my area this is often 2 or 4 hectares with a house).
Currently there are growing but limited opportunities within the first three categories while a number of under-4 hectare farms in the USDA Census of Agriculture probably come about from the latter category. A number of land preservation and access programs across the U.S. either outright ‘buy the farm’ or buy the development rights (see ‘purchase of development rights’). Others serve as linker between farm seller and buyer (see for e.g. Land for Good in the northeastern U.S.). Much more is needed here given the high rate of farmer retirement, without a son or daughter taking over, expected over the next twenty years (see for e.g. Miller and Cocciarelli).
The third ‘F’– farming – is the act of producing food (or fuel or fiber). Prior to the U.S. Land Grant System farmers simply followed in their parents’ footsteps and learned ‘on the job.’ After President Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act in July, 1862 (the same summer he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and in the middle of the U.S. Civil War – a busy summer) and then a subsequent Morrill Act in 1890 (aimed at southern states to ensure African-Americans also had access to higher education) more and more rural youth attended college – many ‘farm kids’ in the 20th century getting ‘scientific training’ that they would take back to the farm. They came with a lifetime of farm experience that they could build on.
Many of today’s new-generation farmers lack either a lifetime of living the seasons or appropriate training. Many U.S. immigrants suffer a lack of land and credit access compounded by institutional and systemic racism. Yet, practically speaking, these two groups form an essential part of U.S. farming in the 21st century. Training programs and support services should accelerate skill acquisition and ensure equity in accessing land and credit. Some will come to farming with no experience, some with a heritage of backyard gardening, and some with farm experience. Different life histories mean different strategies and approaches to optimize the chances of success.
The fourth aspect – farm(s) – is the aggregate unit of land, people, equipment and crops/animals on our landscape. Food (and fuel/fiber) is produced while providing a variety of ecosystem services. Thinking of these as a business, I suggest, is prerequisite for success (unless the desire is for a hobby farm). Forty-four percent of all U.S. small businesses fail within the first three years and 55% within five years. Interestingly, ‘agriculture’ is the third most likely business to survive five years. Seventy-six percent of all start-up businesses fail either from ‘incompetence’ or ‘unbalanced experience/lack of managerial experience.’ As we grapple with entry opportunities it is insufficient to create programs focused exclusively on production skills – a range of business skills are also needed including management, finances, marketing and strategies to scale-up production over time. A recent USDA report indicates small acreage farms (4.1 hectares or less) that self-identify as profitable (2007 Census of Ag data) had gross revenue of US$100,000 and above. Most farms under four hectares don’t have revenues at this level and don’t generate a living from the farm – off farm jobs are required. In many cases households do this out of lifestyle choice – a valid, personal decision. But, these hobby farms will not feed city regions. They won’t provide the volumes of food needed by 500,000 or 10 million people.
How many farmers are needed to produce food for U.S. city regions? What direction are we moving in farm growth? Table 1 illustrates that across the U.S. there was a net loss of 95,000 farms (3.1 million hectares of agricultural land lost) over a five- year period (data from: 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture). The only size category to show an increase are those 810 hectares and above. Seven U.S. Midwestern states (Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) with 518,000 farms and 61.2 million hectares of farmland lost 36,000 farms. My home state, Michigan, lost nearly 4,000 farms. The New York Metropolitan Region (using New York, Connecticut and New Jersey data) gained 3,645 hectares of farmland (of 3.4 million total) but lost 1,000 farms. To me this loss should be a national and global issue - reversing this slide and enabling a diversity of farms providing city regions’ healthy food should be seen as a priority challenge and an opportunity. Why an opportunity?
In my last posting I suggested, based on crop water content, working to produce a greater profusion of a city region’s fruits and vegetables closer to home. I also suggested that regions will have additional land available for grains, legumes, dairy, eggs, and/or meat. In my home state of Michigan a broad range of crops and animals are produced - asparagus, tart (sour) cherries, potatoes, extensive dairy farms, and many more. It means we have a broad range of human capital - skill and experience - across the landscape. It implies that our state’s land grant institution (Michigan State University) has diverse expertise to service research and information needs (although this gets tougher and tougher with state/federal funding cuts).
Michigan farms are potentially in an enviable position relative to possible markets – a Detroit Metro region of 3.7 million people with the Chicago metro area next door (9.5 million) and the New York City metropolitan area (20.6 million) within 800 miles. Based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture the average vegetable farm in the U.S. (excluding California) is 18.4 hectares and produced enough to theoretically supply about 2,100 people while the average fruit farm (excluding California) is 9.6 hectares and produces enough fruit to supply 1,100 people. This means that to supply 50% of the fruit/vegetable needs for the Detroit Metro Area would require about 2,600 average size farms while the Chicago Metro Area would require 6,700 – or 9,300 farms totaling about 115,000 hectares. At this moment Michigan has about that amount of fruit/vegetable hectares in the state (Table 2). However, about half the total land is in only four crops. So while Michigan has a relatively large amount of production the majority is in a narrow range of crops. Diversification through additional farms would be useful.
The New York Metropolitan region provides a different type of challenge. The region would require about 180,000 hectares of fruit and vegetable production to supply 50% of current consumption. New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut combined have about 123,000 hectares on 20,000 farms (and there are a number of other city regions in and/or adjacent to these three states). Thus, the average farm is smaller than the national average and a lot more acreage would need to be put in production to partially supply this region.
How do we think about expanding the breadth and depth of fruit or vegetable farms in these two areas? What is the role of government? I want to be clear here. I don’t think it is the job of government to guarantee individual or business success. But a nation’s security and the stewarding of a nation’s global responsibility are important roles. It is the government’s role to establish policies and strategies that will move its nation towards greater security with a key part of that security being national and global food security. I would argue that a prerequisite to national food security is each nation’s ability to produce its food supply (although this doesn’t mean that all food should come from within its borders). A prerequisite to producing the food supply is the network of farm businesses stewarding a nation’s natural resources, preserving and enhancing them for future generations, while generating a food supply now. A prerequisite to this is continuing development of new farm businesses – some failing, some staying small and relying on off-farm income, and a number growing into significant businesses (say over US$100,000, or even US$500,000, in gross annual sales) that can provide food for city regions across a nation.
A successful farm business does not develop in a vacuum but needs a conducive environment. Consider one example – markets in Michigan. In Michigan, there is a range of activities and networks that new and beginning farmers can consider for both market expertise and market access. The Michigan Good Food Charter was developed in 2010. A range of state agencies, nonprofit organizations, private groups, and individuals has adopted it as a Michigan 2020 roadmap. A series of Michigan networks work to expand opportunities so that at least 20% of all consumed food is produced in-state by that time. These include the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA), with an approximate 4-fold growth in farmers markets this century and their partnership with the Fair Food Network to implement the Double Up Food Bucks Program. This doubles the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for limited resource residents purchasing Michigan produce. MIFMA has helped expand the number of farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits from three in 2007 to over 130 today, with total farmers market SNAP usage increasing from US$14,000 in 2007 to over US$1,600,000 in 2013. The Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MIFN) – a merger of the Farm to School Network and the Michigan Healthy Food in Health Care network - has a range of materials available for farmers and institutional purchasers to expand this market. More recently, the Michigan Food Hub Network has developed, jointly facilitated by the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). MDARD has invested US$1,100,000 in grants for food hub development. These, and others, are the beginnings of efforts needed to expand markets in city regions so that farmers can thrive and all residents have access to healthy food.
There are a number of efforts in the U.S. to enable new farmer development. The MSU Student Organic Farm , with its ten month organic farmer training program, is one of sixty in the U.S. listed on the Rodale Institute Newfarm website. The National Young Farmers Coalition and ATTRA have lists of training and helpful organizations across the U.S. The largest organization for youth and agricultural training is FFA – however fewer and fewer high school students involved in FFA intend to make farming their career probably due both to the expanded range of FFA training beyond farming and the fewer number of high school students coming from farm backgrounds. Among others, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Program has a broad range of strategies especially for immigrant farmers. The USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is a marvelous program first appropriated in 2009 and continues today with US$20 million funding per year. In and of themselves these and other similar programs will not be enough for all U.S. city regions to generate a significant part of a healthy food supply while reducing pressure on other parts of the country (e.g. California) and world (e.g. Mexico). Yet it is a solid start.
Just as we strive to produce generations of engineers and medical doctors we need a structured, coordinated strategy for enabling new generations of farmers on the U.S. landscape. I think there are at least eleven domains that need improvement for this to happen. These include:
- National and global ethos - A valuing of farming by the general public as a rewarding career with the potential for livelihood development.
- Educational sector - Support for higher education students to pursue farming as a career; as an example education loan forgiveness for farmers after five years in business with deferment of payments to that point.
- Financial sector - Pools of funds for infrastructure development with below market interest rates coupled to farming practices that will preserve/build soil and minimize externalized costs (e.g. water pollution, net GHG production, nitrate outflow).
- Engineering sector - Private and public sector development of equipment for different scales of production and waste utilization such that farmers who start very small can identify pathways to scaling up without concomitant increases in labor requirements (i.e. improved efficiency at smaller scaling).
- Energy sector – policies and practices to encourage on-farm renewable energy generation and utilization.
- Insurance sector - Insurance and health policy that favors healthy eating with a premium for consuming a portion produced closer to home.
- Social equity and justice - Resources for limited resource families to participate in local and regional markets alongside those with adequate resources. Recognition and valuing that the color of U.S. farming is changing. Immigration policy that, in part, encourages those with farming skills.
- Government sector – policies and regulations to enable robust farmer development across the three groups outlined above; with market preferencing of regional/local production for market development; a strategy for verifiable ecosystem service payments.
- Land real estate sector – policies and programs that encourage the preservation of farmland for future generations as well as land transfer and preservation strategies.
- Institutional sector – geographic preferencing with fair prices paid for food products.
- Community sector – payments to farmers for ecosystem services such as fresh water maintenance; carbon sink for urban areas including reciprocal verification.
There may be other I haven’t thought of or you may disagree with this analysis. I welcome your thoughts and comments. In the end, though, it’s pretty simple – No Farmers! No Food!
 Hamm, M.W. Farmland, Farms, Farming, and Farmers: The Four F’s of Food Production Gastronomica, Spring (2001) p.27-31.