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America Needs Farmers: Where Do We Sign Up?

C'mon, boomers, let's go back to the land, get to work and save the economy!

posted by John Stark, August 14, 2012 More by this author

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John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


planting onions
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Hey, everybody, grab your pitchforks!
 
I know a way to rescue the economy and put to work everyone over 50 who wants a job.
 
It’s a plan that will also ease our worries about where to live and who’s going to take care of us when we're truly old.
 
My idea stems from an interview with Deputy U.S. Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan that appeared in the Washington Post. Merrigan was quoted as saying that an epidemic is sweeping across America’s farmlands. It’s not a new swine disease. She’s referring to the fact that our country’s farmers and ranchers are getting older — and that few are standing in line to take their places.
 
You’re wrong if you think of farmers and ranchers as hardy young men and women. Seems farming is too tough for America’s youth.
 
Merrigan cited a college blog posting that shook the U.S. Department of Agriculture to its hooves. Agriculture was listed No. 1 on the list of  “useless college degrees.” It beat out philosophy.
 
The average age of farmers and ranchers in New Mexico is 60, and it's similarly high in Arizona, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, Merrigan noted. Agriculture census figures show that the fastest-growing group of farmers and ranchers is the segment over 65. Talk about Old MacDonald had a farm: For every farmer and rancher under 25, there are five who are 75 or older. When 2012 census figures are compiled, the average age is expected to be even higher.
 
“If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don’t know where to begin to talk about the woes,” Merrigan said. The world’s growing population will require 70 percent more food production by 2050, she pointed out. “There is a challenge here, a challenge that has a corresponding opportunity.”
 
I’d like to add one more item to that list of frightening woes: the prospect of 90-year-olds driving tractors.
 
Merrigan’s concerns have prompted her to take action. She’s been making stops at universities across the country in hopes of encouraging more students to think about careers in agriculture.
 
Clearly, she is wooing the wrong demographic. Better she hit Botox clinics.
 
Boomers are a workforce waiting to be tapped:
 
July's AARP unemployment figures for people over 55 show that since the start of the Great Recession in 2007 unemployment has gone from 3.2 percent to 6.2 percent. Today there are nearly two million out-of-work midlifers. In 2007 people over 55 spent 20.2 weeks between jobs; now it’s 51 weeks.

And fewer people are able to retire: Since December 2007 the number of labor force participants ages 65 and over has increased 28 percent. According to AARP, that’s the largest increase for any age group.
 
The two traits that distinguish the post-World War II generation are determination and the love of a challenge. I heard an NPR report the other day that said most boomers want their next job to be something they’ve never done before, and they would like it to be meaningful.
 
What could be more challenging and meaningful than going back to the land?
 
But if young people can't handle the hard physical labor, how can we? Just ask the able-bodied farmers and ranchers of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Mississippi. Then look around your health club. If it’s like mine, the place is packed with people over 50 who are lifting weights, doing the Stairmaster and swimming laps in the pool. Who in our age group isn’t training for a triathlon? As for getting up before the crack of dawn, we do that anyway. Might as well put those hours to good use.
 
An article by Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist, noted that boomers are looking for a new model of living in their old age. “Aging is a team sport,” Thomas wrote. He asked boomers if they saw themselves ending up in a nursing home. Their typical response: “No. You see, me and my friends are going to go in together on a house and we are all going to live together. We are all going to take care of each other.”
 
Boomers, he continued, want to grow old in a setting that generates human warmth, as opposed to the institutional coldness of a nursing home. They want to be in a place that has a “de-emphasis on hierarchy.” They preferred to grow old with 7 to 10 other residents.
 
In other words, a commune — at least that’s what we called it in our idealistic youth. And a farm is the perfect setting for this. We can take turns cooking, milking the cows, plowing the fields and pitching hay. We can eat fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. Is that homemade bread I smell in the oven? Who made the peach jam? After supper we can relax on the front porch in our rocking chairs — passing the time (if not something more aromatic).
 
Those who prefer to be ranchers can live out their Wild West fantasies by herding cattle on a dusty trail, eating meals cooked over a campfire and sleeping under the stars. Bring along your guitar or harmonica. It will be like one big dude ranch — only no one has to pay for the experience. Even if you could afford to retire, why would you? This is too much fun.
 
Will we get rich? If we sell locally grown food, I don't know how we could miss. Price-wise, my neighborhood farmer’s market gives Whole Foods a run for its money. And it’s so packed on weekends you can’t find a parking space.
 
Boomers love going to school and learning new things. The USDA has launched programs in 40 states to train the next generation of farmers and ranchers, said Merrigan. The budget is $75 million.
 
What are we waiting for?