TENNESSEE — The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like and why they might not be so troubling.
Adrienne Gibson works a small plot of land in the rolling hills north of Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s something of a novelty in American agriculture. Female and a minority, Gibson is succeeding in an industry dominated by white men.
Gibson makes a living from her tiny operation by using the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, model of farming. She raises food for a handful of contract customers who pay in advance.
“We have 23 CSA customers. They subscribe to supporting the farm, and in return they get a weekly basket of vegetables from May through October," said Gibson.
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests the number of minority farmers working American soil is expanding rapidly. The data also suggests U.S. farms are getting smaller.
Nate Phillips, who teaches horticulture at Middle Tennessee State University, says smaller farms are, in part, a reaction to changes in the way Americans think about their food.
“There’s growing interest in where our food is coming from, what is the food quality, things like that. I think we’ll continue to see that increase," said Phillips.
Phillips says the interest in where food comes from is also attracting more young people into farming.
“I’m seeing a lot more students from Nashville, or the cities, that are coming in that didn’t grow up around agriculture, weren’t from an agricultural background, but had that interest," he said.
Just a few years ago, hog farmer Brandon Whitt was one of those young students. His family’s thousand hectare, heavily-mechanized operation dwarfs Adrienne Gibson’s tiny farm, but he’s quickly adapting to the same customer trends. Rather than sell his hogs to commercial packers, he sells them to his neighbors.
“We actually take that one step further and actually have the meat processed and sell it directly off the farm, here through our retail store and to local restaurants and grocery stores," said Whitt.
Whitt says consumers need to know, not just how their food is produced, but about some of the challenges farmers face putting it on their tables.
“Teaching consumers about where that food comes from, and quite honestly just how hard it is to get it there at the end of the day," he said.
Nate Phillips considers it a positive development that the people who grow the food are beginning to look more like the people who consume the food.
“I think that’s great. It reflects our general society. It reflects what our communities are like around us, and I think that’s a great thing for agriculture," he said.
There's one trend that every American farmer can be pleased about. Census data shows that the value of the food they produce rose more than 25 percent in just six years.