Would you like to live next to a farm?
I’m thinking about the question because we’re going to have to find a way to answer it, and we’re going to have to do it soon.
Landowners in the United States are old. Nearly every farmable acre in our country will change hands within the next decade as one generation passes and another takes control. The world has never seen such a monumental transfer of food producing acres during a time of peace; huge tracts of land are usually taken under siege. Let that sink in.
My family’s farm is open to the vulnerability. I work with two landowners who are over 80. Each reminds me regularly that they won’t be here forever. Who comes after them?
Let’s consider some generational differences I’ve observed.
Old generations have tangible memories of farm life. Farm work was a ubiquitous reality of their younger years and they value the memories of the work and lifestyle. Today the aging men I know do their best to maintain properties serving as a relic of their childhood labor, too old to grow and sell a crop but too determined to sit and watch the land grow up in brush.
My grazing proposition was well received by both parties. When the cattle arrive, sheer joy overwhelms the hunched and limping people who thought their farms died long ago. They shake my hand and wave and smile and tell me stories about when they were young. Their wives compliment my herd of cattle when they watch the animals grazing out the kitchen window. Both are acutely fascinated with my portable grazing equipment and unique style of management.
The old generation supports agriculture on the production end of the spectrum because they understand it. They’re good neighbors for a young farmer.
Now we’ll flip the coin.
Younger generations are far less likely to have any connection to a farm beyond what they acquire through social stigmas, environmental rhetoric, or trips to the farmer’s market. Their perspective is theoretical, and, thus, is open to the vulnerabilities that accompany expectations in the absence of understanding. A lot of soon-to-be landowners who love the idea of farming will be exposed to it in a much more physical context than what they currently enjoy while reading a menu.
Here is the impending predicament: Expectations and reality are going to collide as local-food-loving families inherit land managed by farmers they claim to support.
I fear that the misalignment, if it cannot be navigated, will derail what progress has been made for local food production in favor of centralized, commercial growing.
Here is an example: A friend of mine enjoyed a friendly relationship with a neighboring landowner, exchanging the right to farm for occasional help around the property. Recently the eighty-something year old patriarch was destroyed by Alzheimer’s, which exposed my friend to the forty year old son of his former landlord. The younger man demands meticulous maintenance of the grounds, believing my friend to have nothing better to do with his time than clean up perceived messes. That land, near to Clarion, will likely go fallow, taking with it the possibility of proximate food production.
A local farmer holds no bargaining power over a land-owning family whose income comes from town, as most incomes do. The land can grow up in brush and nothing changes for the family. So, if local farming practices are deemed unfit for whatever reason, the opportunity door slams shut and delivery companies increase their boxed distribution of “humanely raised meals from local farmers who protect the environment.” That’s all a lie, of course, but what is the truth these days, anyway?
The pinnacle achievement of my generation of farmers will be embracing and including landowners in our food production story so they can see the value of their land as a source of life for the community in which they live. Landowners have to want their land to be farmed, they have to trust that we are capable of caring for it, and they must accept that farming brings with it a seasonal pulse of activity. Bridging this gap will require skills never before required in agriculture. We can’t learn this from Dad.
I believe one technique to aggregate food land is for farmers to advertise available proximate properties to urban counterparts who are willing to buy land just to see it farmed. We need to use wholesome, local food sales as a marketing strategy to attract neighbors willing to support us by securing and protecting the properties from higher value development or wasteful abandonment. That’s an unprecedented idea, but, as I mentioned, these are unprecedented times in land ownership. Audacious creativity is mandatory.
It may be the perfect time for a change. Think: We’ve just proven that a lot of work can be accomplished from home, and tech jobs are paying gazillions of dollars to people who are looking for meaningful investments that make a real difference to the world around them. Many families are longing for the less crowded lifestyle of wide-open fields dotted with cattle situated outside a small town that’s bursting with life.
Hmm. I just described Clarion.
So, I ask again: Would you like to live next to a farm?