The average age of a U.S. farmer is 57.5, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Agricultural Census.
By contrast, the median age of the U.S. workforce is only about 42, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even the average age of those the USDA considers someone new to farming is higher, at 46.
The impact of an aging agricultural workforce is a national issue that can be seen and felt in Eastern Connecticut. Agriculture is an important part of the state’s economy, a $4.2 billion industry responsible for 20,000 jobs, said Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau.
“If we can’t figure out how to secure our local food systems now, we’ll never figure it out,” she said.
The pandemic’s supply chain issues, coupled with less water, have made major agricultural regions in California and Arizona less able to sustain the industry, said Susan Mitchell, owner of Cloverleigh Farm in Colombia.
This makes local agriculture more important than ever, she said.
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“During the worst of COVID, people started looking more locally,” she said. “Food factories (nationally), meat processors, pork processors closed due to COVID outbreaks, and people were like ‘oh my God, where am I going to get my food? “”
With smaller farms, the quality of life for workers and farmers is better, Mitchell said, which translates to higher quality products.
Difficult to compete for workers when easier jobs are available at similar pay
As farmers try to pay better than minimum wage, they still compete for labor with many other, arguably easier, jobs, Nichols said.
“It can be hard work, and they’re willing to pay accordingly, but when the minimum wage goes up to $15 and you’re competing with the Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds of the world, it’s a real challenge,” said Nichols said.
Beyond agriculture proper, there are employment problems in adjacent businesses. At Maurice’s Slaughter House in Canterbury there should be three people processing the animals, but only two are working at the moment, co-owner Linda Mazur said. Although the company can only process a limited amount of meat, it is reserved for meat processing until March, starting in August.
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A third butcher would increase productivity, Mazur said, but the job is taxing in more ways than one.
“It’s carnage,” she said. “You have to have a certain type of personality to do that.”
In turn, farmers depend on guest worker programs for employment, Nichols said.
The Young Farmer Success Act would make farming a public service
One thing that could improve the situation is the Young Farmer Success Act, introduced in the House of Representatives in July. The law, if passed, would consider agriculture a public service. In turn, it would offer full student loan forgiveness after 10 years of successful payment to farmers working in a non-hobbyist agricultural establishment.
“Anything that we can entice new and beginning farmers into the industry is long overdue,” Nichols said.
US Representative Joe Courtney, who introduced the law, said a similar benefit exists for other professions, including teaching, the military and police.
Difficult to get the necessary resources to start farming
Barriers for beginning farmers include access to land, equipment, training and capital. Many of the older farmers come from farming families, so they still have resources passed down. However, the farmer’s own family may not be interested in continuing the operation, so the land will sell for a premium, even if it is conservation farmland, Nichols said.
Often this means that new farmers must have a successful previous career. Mitchell, who supports the law, was a teacher before entering agriculture.
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“I learned that working on farms and picked up those skills over time,” Mitchell said.
Although people do not have to take formal education to start in agriculture, college loans in these earlier careers may persist.
Becca Toms, communications coordinator for the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, said she and a colleague previously worked in social work. Toms’ colleague has since been able to buy a farm, but Toms herself still works there.
“(Wanting to change careers) doesn’t mean student loans from other parts of our lives are gone,” she said.
Back at Cloverleigh Farm, Mitchell employed young people who wanted a career in farming. One of them is UCONN student Nicole Molloy. She specializes in sustainable plant and soil systems, which includes vegetable production. Most of his contemporaries are getting into the cannabis industry.
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Molloy, a resident of Manchester, was drawn to the major because farming was different from her urban upbringing and she was interested in plants.
“I’m still very young and I have so much to learn,” she says.
After school, Molloy will be in debt for $30,000. Molloy said she would be more relaxed if the deed passed, so she could focus on saving for her own property.
Although not necessary, a college education can help a farmer with business skills, said Josh Carnes, owner of Ramble Creek Farm in Colombia.
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Mazur is among those who do not want greater federal government involvement in the industry. Although Mazur recognizes the barriers to entry, she said young people don’t want to do hard work that doesn’t bring in a lot of money.
“It’s seven days a week, every day,” Mazur said. “It’s not like ‘I’m not going to work this morning.’ When you have animals and a farm, you can’t do that.”
Mitchell also said farming is not a get-rich-quick scheme, or generally a quick way to pay off student loans, compared to working in other fields. She said it was important, however, and “we need to encourage it as much as possible”.