Back in 1870, almost half the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture — today just two percent of Americans work on farms. Over the decades, some people were driven away by mechanization or lured to cities by the promise of better paying jobs. More recently, trade wars, tariffs, volatile crop prices and declining profit margins have increased risk for farmers — and then there’s the impact of climate change on crop yields, chronic labor shortages and increasing debt. Add to that the perception of farming as unsophisticated, undesirable work and it’s no wonder family farms, once the backbone of America, are now in crisis.
According to the 2017 USDA census, the average American farmer is 57 years old and with few young people entering the field, farming is in desperate need of new blood. There’s much more than centuries of tradition at stake. The UN estimates that the world population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030, and as high as 9.8 billion by 2050, requiring a 70 percent increase in global food production. With that many mouths to feed, farming may well be the most important job on the planet.
As the CEO of an AgTech company working to help farms transition to more sustainable practices, I’ve seen firsthand the effort and dedication farmers put into stewarding the land and feeding the world. I’ve also seen misperception about what farming is (and isn’t) hold the sector back from attracting younger generations and adopting technological innovations that can improve the lives and livelihoods of farmers.
It seems to me that what’s needed is a rebrand of sorts — a concerted effort to separate myth from fact and promote the potential farming holds for fulfilling, impactful careers. So, how do we give agriculture an image makeover? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few ideas on where to start.
Farming is a Tech Industry — Let’s Treat it Like One
Twenty years ago, it wasn’t cool to work at a car company, but today companies like Tesla are attracting some of our best and brightest by reframing auto manufacturing as a sophisticated, futuristic field. Farming has the potential to do the same.
Agriculture might be perceived as old-fashioned and low-tech, but farmers have worked hand-in-hand with technology for generations — whether it’s large machines like tractors and combines or complex chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. Right now the field is in the midst of profound change as advanced technologies including green chemistries, robotics, artificial intelligence, IoT, autonomous vehicles, machine learning, regenerative agriculture and biomimetics transform how farms look and function. It might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but autonomous vehicles, indoor farming and drone pollination are becoming more common throughout the sector.
Looking at, and more importantly, talking about farming as a part of the tech revolution has the potential to ignite the curiosity and imagination of the next generation. In fact, it’s already happening in many countries in Africa, where millennials are using apps and other inexpensive technologies to improve profits and elevate the image of farmers from peasants to professionals. North America would do well to follow suit with an updated image of farmers wielding smartphones rather than American Gothic-era pitchforks.
Create Better Economics — and Education — for Farmers
Advanced technologies may be poised to revolutionize farming, but the reality is they don’t come cheap — at least not yet.Most farmers don’t have the budget for a strawberry-picking robot much less the skillset to maintain or repair one. What’s needed is an industry-wide, gradual integration of affordable AgTech, accompanied by education and mentorship. Traditional farming co-ops could be revitalized to help bring farming into the digital age by pooling funds and sharing resources to offset the cost of emerging technologies — while still providing vital networks for knowledge sharing and a sense of community.
Meanwhile, farming knowledge, once passed down from generation to generation, needs to include people who weren’t necessarily raised on farms. Programs like Square Roots and New Entry are starting this wave with courses like plant science, indoor farming and business foundations that aim to teach next-generation farming skills to a new generation and lineage of farmers.
Right now farmers can test and iterate on a crop season maybe 50 times in their life. New tools will allow them to experiment and optimize much more rapidly. Startups like Prospera, Iron Ox and Farmer’s Edge are utilizing sensors, analytics and machine learning to capture the interest of younger generations and improve predictability, precision and profits. My own company is working to reduce reliance on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides while increasing yields by gathering data on how inputs like crop protection products, nutrients and water can be used more effectively to naturally boost a plant’s resistance to pests, disease and drought. By augmenting farmers’ intuition with informed cause and effect, we can use technology to take the guesswork out farming and decrease risk.
Deepen Our Connection with Food
There’s something special about the gift of food. If someone takes the time to bake you a pie, it’s a gift from the heart. If someone bakes you a pie made with strawberries and rhubarb that they grew themselves? Now that’s a whole new level of love.
From food bloggers posting plates on Instagram to the explosion of TV shows exploring everything from street food to obscure ingredients, foodie culture has deepened our appreciation of good food. But there’s still a disconnect with how it’s grown, or more importantly, who grew it.
Fortunately, we’re headed in the right direction. The increasing popularity of plant-based products such as Beyond Meat and the skyrocketing demand for organic, natural and local produce has people asking what’s in their food. The next step is to connect the dots with how it’s grown.
Education of this sort needs to start at a young age, with school community garden projects and field trips to farms. The Clinton Foundation’s Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture program provides a hands-on agricultural literacy that helps kids understand the food journey – from farm to table – and teaches them about healthy eating, sustainable farming practices and the fragility of our ecosystem. Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden, meanwhile, sparked a nationwide conversation about nutrition and exposed a generation of kids to the joys of growing their own food. We need to build on that legacy.
Emphasize the Purpose of Farming
We’ve heard time and again that millennials want meaningful careers that help make the world a better place. Often that interest is funnelled towards jobs in CleanTech, non-profits, the environment or the arts. But farming is an overlooked industry with incredible potential to help improve the world.
Farmers are stewards of the land, with huge potential to restore damaged ecosystems by employing sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices. As the world grapples with the effects of climate change, the next generation of farmers has a pivotal role to play in correcting the mistakes of the past. Companies like Ingleby Farms have tapped into this ethos by promoting their focus on long-term care of the land, green energy and biodiversity. They’re walking the talk, providing food with a conscience and farms with a future.
Somewhere along the line we started to devalue farmers and take them for granted, but it’s hard to think of a career that’s more important for our collective survival. Feeding the planet isn’t simplistic or base, it’s multifaceted, complex and sophisticated. Farmers are the original experimenters, hackers, makers and problem-solvers; they’re biologists, chemists, engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors. Perhaps if we talked about them like that, young people would be inspired to continue their legacy, and proudly bring the field into the future.