Farm near Bakersfield, CA (Photo Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro)
If asked, “What threatens farming today?” you’d probably say, severe droughts, rising fuel prices, or high cost of feed, as all three issues have dominated the airwaves this year. But what about the serious problem of the graying of America’s farmers? The fastest growing segment of the farmer and rancher population is those over 65 years old.
In California, the average farm operator is nearly 60 years old and 20 percent are over 70. According to the last Census of Agriculture, from 2002 to 2007, the number of farmers under 45 dropped 14 points nationwide and analysts are concerned that the 2012 Census will show an even wider age gap.
Despite all this, demand for California’s agricultural products remains strong. The Golden State continues to produce the largest number of agriculture exports in the nation, accounting for nearly 12 percent of the US total. Last year the state experienced a 15 percent increase in crop value, receiving a record $43.5 billion in receipts.
But how will we fill demand if few are stepping up to replace retiring operators?
Enter Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a Salinas-based organization helping minority, low-income farmworkers become farmer owners.
“The aging farmer population is a huge problem, and the groups we work with are the logical choice to fill the gap,” said Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA’s Agriculture Education Program Manager.
Through their farm education program, Programa Educativo para Agricultores (PEPA), ALBA is not only training the next generation of California farmers but also changing the face of the industry.
Farming is a profession historically dominated by white men. Although the number of Latino farm operators nationwide grew 14 percent from 2002 to 2007, they account for less than three percent of farmers overall. The majority of ALBA’s students are Latino and nearly 40 percent are women.
The ten-month PEPA bilingual program accredited by Hartnell Community College, teaches aspiring farmers about organic crop production and planning, marketing, small business management, and offers hands-on learning farming a small plot of land.
“A lot of the farmworkers that pass through our program have a history of farming in Mexico and on-farm experience working the fields here, but unfortunately, many don’t have the opportunity for career advancement or professional development,” said Harkleroad.
To jump start their businesses, graduates of the program can enroll in ALBA’s Farm Business Incubator, which provides these beginning famers with technical assistance and business planning as well as access to equipment, irrigation, and subsidized leasing of farmland for up to six years.
Since 2001, ALBA has created over 80 small-farm businesses.
“Farming, like any small business, is risky, you need time and resources to be able to develop it, and ALBA provides a safer space that increases the likelihood of success,” said Harkleroad.
To increase sales, these fledgling farmers can sell their produce through ALBA Organics, a distributor that sells to Google, Whole Foods, and Stanford University Dining Services. ALBA Organics, which sources 80 percent of its produce from their graduates, is projected to generate $5 million in revenue this year, according to Harkleroad.
And so it seems ALBA’s programs create a win-win. They help to revitalize California’s agricultural sector by infusing fresh blood into the industry. At the same time, by providing an opportunity for social mobility in a region devastated by high unemployment, it advances economic equity in the region.
To guarantee a sustainable future for agriculture, an industry vital to the California economy, the state will need to encourage a younger, more diverse set of Californians to enter the farming profession.