Friday, August 20, 2021

Farming gets an influx of millennials, with fresh perspective

Zain Shauk, 36, is the CEO of Houston-area hydroponics operation Dream Harvest Farming Co.
(Wall Street Journal photo by Michael Starghill Jr.)

The average American farmer is 57.5 years old, a number that has been steadily rising for decades, but an influx of millennials, many from non-farming backgrounds, have been taking up agriculture and bringing with them enthusiasm, off-beat ideas and high-tech fluency that are changing what it means to farm, Krithika Varagur reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Only 8 percent of U.S. farmers are under 35, according to the Agriculture Department's 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent. But their numbers have been growing: "From 2012 to 2017, the number of producers under age 35 grew 11% to about 285,000, while producers age 35-64 had shrunk by 2%," Varagur reports.

The lingering effects of the Great Recession may have been responsible for the numbers in 2017, since economic crises often create more interest in small-scale farming, said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, founder of Greenhorns, a nonprofit for young farmers. She's seen the same thing happening during the pandemic; in both cases, she told Varagur, widespread unemployment created a larger pool of workers who wanted to give farming a try.

As with their urban peers, many young farmers have side gigs. In 2017, "some 58% of U.S. producers overall, including 65% of those under 35, had a primary occupation other than farming," Varagur reports. Still, farming remains a dicey financial proposition: nearly one-third of small farmers were expected to face bankruptcy by the end of the year, according to a May 2020 survey. That's why some millennials pivot from farming into a related field such as agricultural equipment sales.

Sometimes it does work out, though. Former reporter Zain Shauk, now 36, dreamed up a hydroponic lettuce business with a friend on a trip to Las Vegas in 2014. Today, their Houston-area business, Dream Harvest Farming Co., profitably employs 32 people and operates 7,500 square feet of warehouse space, Varagur reports.

For other millennials considering a farming career, Hauk recommends thinking about your own life experiences for guidance. "I decided to start farming greens after having one too many experiences buying lettuce that went bad before I even got home," Hauk told Varagur. "I would encourage others to think that way, too. If you’re frustrated by the meat, types of fish, fruits, or whatever else you buy week after week, you actually have the option to change that, which is so cool."

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