Who Is Today’s Farmer?

Farmers come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the beginning-farmer programs to help us succeed.

by Dani Yokhna
Who Is Today's Farmer - Photo courtesy Corey Templeton/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Corey Templeton/Flickr

As a kid, you might have had a play set with a tractor, a barn, some animals, and a round, male farmer figure wearing overalls and a straw hat. You probably also had a story book that pictured a gray-haired, white, male farmer with a piece of straw hanging from his mouth and a housedress-wearing wife by his side. This is what society tells us a farmer looks like.

When I was the editor of Hobby Farms, I wrote an editor’s note about breaking the farmer stereotype. I talked about the strange looks and the comments—oh, the comments—that I’d get when pulling up to the diesel pump with my 3/4-ton pickup and 30-foot livestock trailer. I don’t doubt that the patrons at the gas station—some of them no doubt farmers themselves—expected the driver to be someone fitting the description above instead of, well, me.

There certainly are farmers out there who fit the “traditional” American farmer picture, but many others are out there, too. I’ve long known that the farmer stereotype of yore isn’t an entirely accurate picture of the people working land, growing food and caring for animals, and now I have some proof.

The New-Generation Farmer
MidAtlantic Farm Credit recently partnered with Temple University on a study about who they’re calling “the new-generation farmer.” The study was admittedly self-serving, as MidAtlantic Farm Credit wanted to learn more about their customer base, but the results are interesting for all of us.

The new-generation farmer, according to the study, is:

  • Values driven
  • Strongly tied to their local community
  • Farming organically and/or sustainably
  • Adept at marketing
  • Creative
  • Innovative
  • Distributing through multiple channels
  • Often selling direct to the customer

I’d take a good guess that many of these new-generation farmers also fall into the category of “beginning farmer,” which the USDA defines as someone who has operated his or her farm or ranch for 10 years or less—it’s as simple as that. I’m happy to report there’s no mention of trailer-driving skills, gender or choice of clothing.

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This new-generation farmer—a description that fits me and possibly you—is being supported by beaucoup de beginning-farmer programs. It makes me question which came first: the new generation farmers or the programs to draw in these farmers?

Cultivating New Farmers
More beginning farmer and rancher programs exist now than ever before, and the USDA cites many reasons for this phenomenon:

  • the rising average age of U.S. farmers
  • the expected decrease in farmer and rancher populations (an estimated 8-percent between 2008 and 2018)
  • growing recognition of beginning farmers’ and ranchers’ modern-day needs 

If you find yourself in the pool of new-generation/beginning farmers, your are among the 17.2 percent of farmers like you. (This number is down from 38 percent in 1982 and 26 percent in 2007, incidentally.) It’s a tough spot to be in—farming isn’t exactly an easy profession or hobby and certainly not one you can master. I went looking for beginning-farmer support, and it turns out there’s a whole lot in the way of funding, education and networking.

You have USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loans, education and resources through Cornell University’s Northeast Beginning Farmers Project, a directory of resources from USDA National Agricultural Library’s Start 2 Farm program, USDA Rural Youth Loans (if you’re starting really young), programs through the National Young Farmers Coalition (which actually means “beginning” when it says “young”), and many programs offered by farming organizations and cooperative extensions in every state. With the passage and gradual implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill, there are even more beginning-farmer opportunities coming down the pike.

The USDA programs are government programs, so it doesn’t matter whether you fit the “traditional” farmer or “new-generation” farmer demographic: Missing out on these is like missing out on a paycheck you’ve earned. And as a farmer, you might not be earning a giant paycheck otherwise, so take advantage!

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