Age gap crisis: Why young farmers are disappearing

Special Reports

In Oregon, farmers over the age of 75 outnumber farmers under the age of 35 two to one

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part story.

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Beth Satterwhite makes farming look cool. Her photos of fresh flowers and colorful produce have earned her nearly 38,000 followers on Instagram.

“Everybody on the Internet likes to tell me, ‘Oh I wish I had your life,'” Satterwhite said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t think you know what my life is actually like, but sure it looks nice on Instagram.’”

Beth Satterwhite & Erik Grimstad, pictured Feb. 22, 2020 (Even Pull Farm)

Growing up in Washington County, Satterwhite’s first job was on a berry farm, a common start for many kids in rural areas. Farming never crossed her mind as a career, though. She graduated from Linfield College 10 years ago with a bachelor’s in sociology and minor in philosophy. She tried to be a “good girl” and use that degree, working at a range of nonprofits.

Soon, she realized the cubicle life was not for her. She’d had some experience studying food systems before, so she ended up ditching the office job and asking a local farmer to give her a call if he ever needed help. Over the course of two years, she learned everything from starting seeds to running a CSA. Then in 2015, she and her husband started operating Even Pull Farm on a small slice of rented land near McMinnville.

Satterwhite is now part of an exclusive club: Young farmers.

American farmers are getting older

Across the United States, the number of young farmers has trended downward since the early 1980s according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. The 65 and older crowd is the only demographic to have consistently trended upward in that time period.

The widening age gap “reveals a crisis of attrition in agriculture as farmers retire without a successor in place,” according to the National Young Farmers Coalition.

In Oregon, you’re far more likely to meet a 75-year-old farmer than a 35-year-old farmer. If you do find a young farmer, chances are they’re the second, third, or fourth generation running their business. For example, Austin Chapin is the fourth generation to own and operate Chapin Orchards in Marion County.

“The average age of a farmer does continue to rise,” Chapin said. “There is a next generation coming up. I’m just not sure if it’s as quick as we would like.”

“You can do better”

Evan Kruse, another fourth generation farmer, always wanted to go into the family business. He remembers playing with toy tractors as a child, not in the backyard, but out in the fields, trying to “do farming.”

Evan Kruse is a fourth-generation farmer from Roseburg (Skype)

Even growing up in Roseburg, a city surrounded by farms, Kruse said he got convinced out of wanting to be a farmer.

“I would hear from a lot of people, ‘You can do something better. You’d be a good engineer or you’d be a good scientist,'” Kruse said. “I figured not everybody could be wrong.”

So he went to University of Oregon, studied business economics, got married, moved to Japan so his wife could teach there, and took a job in publishing when they returned to the U.S.

Kruse started helping out on the farm here and there when his grandfather had some health issues. Eventually, he decided to return to the farm full time.

Kruse doesn’t think his journey is atypical for the modern farmer. “We just see more people coming back to the farm after another career instead of staying on the farm,” he said. “I think that the statistic that shows there aren’t a lot of young farmers … doesn’t necessarily paint the picture that the next generation of farmers is out there getting a pretty amazing education.”

However, not every child of farmers will take up the torch, and breaking into the industry seems almost impossible.

“Chipping away at a million dollar mountain”

Satterwhite is one of the elusive first-generation farmers. Starting Even Pull Farm, which encompasses a tiny three acres, was a huge financial undertaking, made possible only by the fact that her husband Erik Grimstad works full time in wastewater services and had a decent chunk of savings.

(KOIN graphic, U.S. Census of Agriculture data)

Now entering the farm’s sixth season, Satterwhite said they were considering purchasing their own land. The coronavirus response has thrown a bit of a wrench in that now, since they lost most of their restaurant business. But pre-pandemic, they were maxing out their current acreage, she said.

“It’s getting to the point for us where it doesn’t make sense for us to pour all of our energy and investment into a rented piece of land because we don’t get to retain any of the benefits of doing that,” she said.

Farmland doesn’t come cheap. Satterwhite said they’re looking at buying 20 irrigated and farmable acres. But property like that often comes with houses, outbuildings and additional acreage that can’t be utilized for food production.

“Property values are truly nuts here, so pretty much what we’re looking at is spending a million dollars on farmland,” she said.

It’s a daunting prospect that weighs on her mind, even as she’s trying to provide “cheerful and chipper” customer service in her farmers market booth.

“We are chipping away at a million dollar mountain with $3 purchases,” she said. “It’s truly an insane way to try and make the economics work.”

Chapin and Kruse both agree the path to come back to the farm is a lot easier than the path to start a new farm.

“Just the initial investment is so drastic,” Chapin said. “Some things like trees, it takes a long time before you start making money off ‘em. And it’s hard to come out of college with a piece of paper and go to a bank and say, ‘Hey I need a million dollars to buy some land, plant some trees, oh and I’m going to start paying you back in about seven years.’ Just doesn’t work.”

Which is not to say multi-generational farmers have it easy. The work is grueling and rarely financially rewarding.

“It’s frickin hard,” Satterwhite said. “There’s a reason people have been fleeing the farm for generations. But there’s also a reason so many of us are feeling the call back as well because the work is so deeply important and fulfilling on its own.”

Editor’s note: Part two of this story will examine potential solutions to the widening age-gap among farmers.

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