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The Dilemma of the Aging Organic Farmer

There’s a national emergency in organic farming today, and it has nothing to do with pest control, food supply, or consumer demand. The country’s most knowledgeable, experienced, and successful organic farmers have reached their golden years, and they’re worried about who will manage their farms in the future.

How can elderly farmers afford to retire? How will they pass their organic farming knowledge onto the next generation? And where should they turn if their children have no interest in the agriculture industry?

Photo credit: Neil Palmer via WikiMedia Commons

The average age of the American farmer is 57, and the fastest-growing age group for farmers is 65 and over, according to the Census Bureau. Two dozen organic farmers from the U.S. and Canada recently met at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California to discuss these concerns and shed some light on possible solutions. 

Many elderly farmers got in organics from anti-establishment beginnings and rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. But since that time, organic farming has become fairly mainstream. The Organic Trade Association reported that organic food sales skyrocketed from $1 billion in 1990 to $31.5 billion in 2012.

Much has changed in the organics industry over the years, as farmers feel the pressure of competition and the financial incentive for year-around crops over seasonable fruits and vegetables. Some of these aging farmers have found success through community-supported agriculture arrangements, harvest sharing, multiple farmer’s market stands, and direct food sales to supermarkets or restaurants.

Despite the financial potential, the farming lifestyle can still be a hard sell. One 65-year-old farmer who attended the Esalen conference, Tom Willey, tried explaining how profitable his farming business was to his three children, but none of them were interested in taking over. “Farmers often work seven days a week and as many hours a day as the sun is up,” he said. “Young people looking into agriculture are not willing to make that drastic a sacrifice.”

A farmer and one of the event’s organizers, Michael Ableman, is writing a book about the gathering to hopefully draw more attention to the dilemma of the aging organic farmer and let younger generations know how crucial their involvement is to the organic movement. Deborah Garcia, a filmmaker and the widow of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, is making a documentary to attract public attention and hopefully ignite youthful passions even further.

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