Posted on Wed, Jul. 13, 2005

A SHRINKING CROP OF YOUNG FARMERS

By Carolyn Jung
Mercury News


Young farmer?

Nationwide -- and statewide -- that's an oxymoron if there ever was one.

At all of 32 years of age, Watsonville strawberry farmer Rob Rodriguez stands out. Most other farmers he knows are of his father's generation, not his.

According to census data, the number of farmers under 35 fell 44 percent in California and 18 percent nationwide from 1997 to 2002. As a result, in 2002, only 5.8 percent of all farmers nationwide could count themselves in Rodriguez's age group.

The high price of land, the scarcity of farmland near urban centers, as well as more lucrative job opportunities in other less physically taxing industries, have increasingly made farming a hard sell to a new generation.

Just consider: The average age of a principal farm operator in the United States in 2002 was 55.3, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture; in California, the average age was slightly higher at 56.8. And those averages have been steadily climbing since 1978.

``Farmers look at all the barriers -- economic, trade, environment, irrigation, the market,'' said Michael Marks, a Sacramento produce specialist who has been in the fruit and vegetable industry for more than 25 years. ``When you look at all that, why in the world would a college-educated son of a third-generation farmer want to take over the family farm except to take over the land to sell it to a developer? They think, `I can grow one crop of houses and retire. Or I can continue fighting these uphill barriers and try to survive.' ''

But some do. Look around closely -- very closely -- and you'll spot the dedicated few: 20-something and 30-something farmers plying their fruits and vegetables at Bay Area farmers markets, or getting their hands dirty in their lush fields in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Some are Latino and Southeast Asian immigrant farmworkers who have risen to new independence in running their own farms. And some are U.S.-born and college-educated, drawn to this graying industry to rally the causes of organics and sustainability.


Degree from Brown

``This is pro-active environmentalism,'' said Jason McKenney, a 34-year-old Brown University graduate, about why he started Purisima Greens organic farm in Half Moon Bay.

In the 1970s, such ideals sparked a surge nationwide in the number of young people joining the organic farming movement, said Desmond Jolly, director of the Small Farm Center at the University of California-Davis, which conducts agricultural research and outreach efforts to small family farms.

Many of those young people became successful innovators in organics. But now they are middle-aged. Indeed, the average age of an organic farmer nationwide was 51 in 2001, and has been creeping upward for the past few years, according to survey results by the Organic Farming Research Foundation. And another wave like that of the 1970s is highly unlikely, Jolly said, not when the cost of a modest house and a few acres in Northern California is now easily over a million dollars.

Without younger people to take over stewardship of the land, agricultural experts worry about what's ahead. Will family-owned farms become an endangered species? As more of our food is produced by massive corporate farms and imported from Chile or China, will a part of Americana be lost?

``We have to understand that farming has to be part of the future, that it's not all office parks and 3,000 housing units,'' said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. ``Otherwise, where do people think their food will come from in 20 or so years?''


Imports increase

Increasingly, food is coming from outside our borders. The United States has been a net exporter of agricultural products since 1959, reported Amber Waves, a magazine for the Economic Research Service, the main source of economic information for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1996, however, the agricultural trade surplus has shrunk from $27.3 billion (an all-time high) to $10.5 billion. Although U.S. agricultural exports continue to rise, imports are increasing nearly twice as fast.

Still, there are signs that younger people, here and there, many of them immigrants, continue to want to farm.

``When I was 8, I helped my grandfather grow strawberries in Mexico,'' said Rodriguez, who operates Rodriguez Ranch. ``Now, I grow strawberries here. Why strawberries? I think it's the thing our family does best.''

In 2002, on 79,631 farms in California, there were 11,985 farm operators of Hispanic heritage, 5,379 of Asian ancestry, and 388 who were black. Because the 2002 Census of Agriculture was categorized and calculated differently from previous ones, it cannot be determined if those figures are rising or declining. But anecdotal evidence suggests the number of young ethnic farmers is mounting.

Since its inception four years ago, Agriculture and Land-based Training Association in Salinas, a non-profit that assists farmworkers and other low-income people in becoming independent small farmers, has helped about 100 families realize their dream of operating their own farms in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. All were former farmworkers, most of them Latinos, and the majority of them in their 20s and 30s, said Gary Peterson, the organization's communications and development director.

Another program, California FarmLink in Sebastopol, was founded in 1998 specifically to help conserve farmland in the state by linking prospective new farmers with older ones, who are about to retire from their farms. Through sales and leases of land, the organization has been able to match up about 25 young farmers to farmland that might otherwise have been lost to production, said Steve Schwartz, founding director of California FarmLink. About 20 percent of those new farmers have been Latino and Hmong immigrants.


Reason for hope

Sara Mora, coordinator of the Young Farmers and Ranchers committee of the California Farm Bureau, also has high hopes. Established in 1947 as a way to involve young people in the farm bureau, the committee's membership of 18- to 35-year-olds has held steady at 1,400 members for the past five years.

``When you look at the census numbers, the farm population is aging. But when you look at this program, we see younger people excited about agriculture,'' said Mora, who comes from a fifth-generation ranching family. ``They might not be going back to agriculture today, but maybe they will be in five years or 10 years or more.''

That's promising, but it's the ``more'' that troubles Jolly.

``Remember that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were young people when they invented what they did,'' he said. ``You need that youthful energy, that creative energy, that physical energy to keep re-energizing any industry. If we don't keep having that in agriculture, it's not a good thing.''


Contact Carolyn Jung at (408) 920-5451 or cjung@mercurynews.com. Fax (408) 271-3786.