If someone were to ask you how old the average farmer in the United States was, what would your guess be? Up until a few years ago, the number of small farms in America had been dropping every year, as large scale operations bought out, outcompeted, or just took over small family farms that were struggling financially. Since the agricultural revolution (ironically once dubbed the “green revolution”), farming as a way of life has become much more challenging financially, so many young people shunned the occupation in favor of better paying, less laborious pursuits.
Well, according to Charles Kinoshita of the College of Tropical Agriculture, the average age of farmers in Hawai’i is 60. “There are 80 year old coffee farmers on the Big Island,” said Kinoshita. The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) in Hawai’i has cited food and agriculture as one of the fields in which many new skilled laborers will be needed in coming years…3500 new workers per year, in fact. This figure doesn’t count just farmers, but it is clear that many more will need to jump on agriculture as a career if we’re going to replace our aging workforce, as will have to enter the field to fill all the new expansion as well.
The need is pretty clear. Hawai’i imports 85% of its food and would face mass starvations after just a few days if cut off from those imports. Thomas Ka’eo Duarte of the Kamehameha Schools, one of Hawai’i's largest landowning institutions, said that his organization currently has roughly 90,000 acres across 5 islands that have high potential for production. By shifting away from ranching a low margin activity, Duarte believes this land will hit breakeven by next year, and by 2015 be firmly profitable. Kamehameha Schools is investing $22 million in agriculture statewide over the next 5 years. “We’re bullish on agriculture,” Duarte said.
This need, and the prospect of a profitable livelihood, may help bring younger farmers back into the fold. As many young people want to work in sustainability, the concept of adding renewable, clean energy to the mix is also alluring. Kamehameha Schools has roughly 20 MW of wind capacity now, and is looking to add more wind, as well as solar and hydro to its production mix by 2015 to bring their total clean energy production to 100 MW.
Still, farming is a hard life. According to Fred Lau of Mari’s Farms, “If birds, disease and weather don’t kill your crops, you get to harvest, which is a lot of work, then you have to chill, package and ship…and then 30 days after all that, you get paid.” Lau believes that without some kind of outside assistance, the business model for farming is just not there.
Younger farmers may be more willing to enter into cooperatives with other farmers than older farmers are, one thing that may help them all thrive, according to Lau. Cooperatives can help farmers to market products and do distribution, tapping into economies of scale not typically available to smaller operators.
Kinoshita said his school is already working to help bring younger people into the fold, and that they have substantial resources such as agricultural extension specialists. The moderator of the panel point out that the College of Tropical Agriculture just received a rather sizeable donation from Monsanto, the GMO biotech company perhaps most famous for suing small family farmers for allegedly stealing their GMO seeds, then settling out of court if the farmer agreed to buy into a long term contract to buy Monsanto’s seeds and forbidding them from collecting their own seeds. (see here for Monsanto’s justification of suing family farmers, and see here for other coverage). When asked about a potential conflict of interest there, Kinoshita replied that only a small portion of that money was actually being used to do research on GMO crops and much of it allowed the college to help small farmers. Monsanto’s representative was in the room at the time of this response.
Ray Iwamoto, legal counsel and agricultural specialist at Schlack Ito, a Honolulu law firm, might have summed up the biggest challenge facing young farmers, when he said that “we’ve talked to banks about getting loans for young people looking to farm, and they say to me, ‘Ray, if we have to foreclose, who’s going to buy?’”
Getting to the heart of the matter, Mr. Lau concluded that we need everyone to buy local to help support young farmers, and smaller farms that produce our vegetables and fruits. “Otherwise”, Lau said, “when we need those farms, they won’t be there.”
Scott Cooney is the developer of a GBO Hawai’i, a new Triple Bottom Line, Monopoly-esque board game, and the author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill).
Photo courtesy of Mark Heard on Flickr Creative Commons