By now there is little doubt that the younger generation is rapidly changing the look and feel of the agricultural industry. Although inevitable, it still may be tough to swallow the fact that millennials now outnumber the baby boomers in this country. We’ve often talked about what this all means for the farmer and for food production in general. For this generation of up-and-comers food is personal. How, where and by whom food is produced matters a lot to them.
What is interesting about this younger generation, who are stereotypically labeled as harsh critics of our current food production system, is that on the surface most only seem to want to voice their dissatisfaction vicariously. It is easy and safe to go after genetically modified apples and Roundup in your Cheerios via your Facebook and Twitter accounts. What is becoming increasing apparent is that there is a much, much lower percentage of this next generation that actually wants to “get their hands dirty” when it comes to becoming a part of the solution to the problem that they are essentially creating.
How bad is that problem? Well according to a 2016 National Science Foundation survey, the percentage of adults who now find GMOs dangerous was at a staggering 79 percent. That is up dramatically from numbers from similar surveys taken in the previous years of 2010 and 2000. Want more proof? A study last year by the International Food Information Council concluded that six in 10 consumers tagged food sustainability as important to them. The better question may be, do consumers really know what sustainability even means?
For something that is so dangerous and so important you would think there would be more bodies and minds actually flocking to the industry of agriculture to “transform” it more to their liking. Right now, the numbers are showing that not to be the case. In 2016, an industry study by food and agriculture conglomerate Land O’Lakes found that only 3 percent of college graduates and 9 percent of millennials have or would consider a career in agriculture. Such numbers, if true should not just be concerning but instead alarming. If according to recent statistics it takes 15 percent of the American workforce to produce, process and sell our nation’s food and fiber, then Houston we have a problem. A math problem.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon that this numbers gap will close and that the old ways of ag and the new values voiced by this next generation will find common ground. One of the first ways that will happen is that both sides will start to understand each other and the issues that bring them to this table. That may already be happening in some non-traditional ways. And as it turns out there are some urban-grown millennials who are finding it’s okay to “get their hands dirty,” but they don’t have to leave the city to do it.
Turns out urban agriculture is not an oxymoron but a real thing that is growing a new breed of agriculturalists. This time, it’s not happening on the back 40 but instead in shipping containers, high-tech greenhouses and abandoned high-rises in downtown Detroit. Traditionalists scoff at the thought that such folly could even fall under the label of production agriculture. Scoff all you want, but “urban agriculture” even has its own section on Flipboard, my favorite mobile news app. And in some small and big ways it is fundamentally changing how food is grown and delivered, catering directly to the farm-to-table movement that continues to grow.
While the naysayers are correct in pointing out that urban agriculture cannot even come close to supplying the volume of food needed to feed a nation, it just might be able to teach an old dog some new tricks. In the U.S., a mere 4 percent of the farmers produce nearly 66 percent of total farm products in terms of value. That doesn’t necessarily mean that such farms are the most sustainable by today’s definition. The technologies, ideas and methods coming out of urban farming ventures that drive less water usage, less pesticide usage and little to no nutrient runoff will certainly find its way out of the city to the back 40 sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, back on the traditional farm another change is happening--a generational shift. According to Ag America’s Lending “2017 Fast Facts About Agriculture,” millennial farmers now make up 8 percent of U.S. farmers. Couple that number with the fact that 20 percent of all current farmers are considered “beginning farmers” meaning they have less than 10 years of farming under their belt. Who better to understand and communicate with a millennial than another millennial?
If this generation truly wants to change the world there is no better place to start than the industry that feeds it. Because, as this generational shift happens among consumers and the hands that feed them it is going to bring about some challenging and exciting times. The questions will be whether there will be enough people who are motivated to transform the industry for the better and continue to feed a nation and the world like the previous generation did oh so very well. There is no doubt they have some very big shoes to fill. Maybe, just maybe, they just might decide it’s okay to get their hands dirty. Who knows, they may find out agriculture is one of the coolest and most impactful professions on the planet.