No one will contest that farming can be a difficult job. Farming can start early in the morning and keep you busy until late at night, seven days a week, if you want it to. But farming can also be whatever you make it. It can be full-time in a field or a leisurely activity done from a tractor. It can be highly automated or entirely hands-on. It can be accomplished in small pens in your backyard or on large paddocks in the back 40. Farming has a broad definition, and therefore, it can suit the needs, desires and vulnerabilities of people of any age. Age is no longer an excuse for not following that lifelong dream of starting a farm.
When it comes down to it, we need more farmers—both young and old. As a nation, even though it may seem sometimes as if the country’s renewed interest in agriculture is fulfilling our needs through the so-called “back-to-the-land movement,” we saw a 4.3 percent decline of farmers between 2007 and 2012, and this statistic is not expected to improve. We need more people willing to play the typical farmer roles—market gardening, grain growing, grassfed livestock production, et cetera—as well as the vitally important supporting roles—compost farmers, seed growers, hay producers and so on. Within that, I see a lot of room for people who may no longer be able-bodied 20 year olds, yet who still have many years ahead of them, to join in.
Farming must be done smartly, of course. No one, at any age, should bet the farm on farming. Instead, one should decide what particular element of farming is appealing, and try that out first. Go help a farmer. See what it’s like; see if you enjoy it. You may think you are interested in raising cattle, but find you are actually really into vegetable production.
That said, don’t let the fatigue of hard work discourage you. Farming equips you over time with the ability to farm. If it seems too hard at first, you can always start small—a small garden, a small herd—and build from there: Adapt more machinery to help, or hire someone for the duties you don’t feel up for. With experience, you will get stronger, more efficient and more capable—yes, even if you start out later in life.
Setting goals can also help you figure out what farming looks like at your age. Are you trying to make a living farming, bring in some extra cash or just engage in a new hobby? If you really want to make a living off the farm, do it. It’s entirely possible—even on a small scale—but treat it like any business: Start with a business plan. Map out your expenses and budget. Do some market research. Read a lot. Go to workshops. Really get a feel for it before you dive in.
If you just want to play around, that’s OK, too. I would, in that case, still map out a budget and decide how much money you can put into the farm before it starts causing problems within your savings. I’d hate for someone to start out wanting to play and wind up needing to make a living to support their interest. You should always want to make some money, or at least break even, but you don’t have to have a big, high-volume operation to do so.
Farming can be small. Having livestock doesn’t have to be managing thirsty, hungry, needy cattle—it can can just as easily mean keeping quail, whose eggs and meat are seeing a growing market among chefs and foodies. Heck, it could even mean keeping earthworms, the castings of which sell for upwards of a dollar per pound in some areas. (And, of course, so long as there are fishermen, there is always a market for earthworms.)
Farming can be tall. Organic flower production is becoming more and more popular, and I don’t see why someone of any age couldn’t take advantage of it. For those who would like to farm but may not have the knees and back for picking beans, may find the tall flowers a nice, soothing, but also profitable activity. Or better yet, start a U-pick farm. Anytime you can get the customers to pay you to do the hard work sounds like a smart and sustainable business model to me.
But I don’t want to come off as patronizing. Try anything you’re interested in—big, small or otherwise—so long as you prepare yourself and try it thoughtfully. Really, you should base your decision to become a farmer not on your age but your desire to do it. I mean, the average age of the American farmer is up to nearly 58 now—who says that has to be a bad thing?