The average American farmer is 58 years old, presaging a crisis in agriculture if younger farmers don’t take their place. But only 8% of farmers are under age 35.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made concerted efforts to help young and beginning farmers, particularly with access to farmland, credit and marketing skills. But focusing on the technical side of farming misses a fundamental fact about farms: They are inherently social entities, and their success depends upon social infrastructure as much as biophysical or financial infrastructures. Bolstering food systems’ resilience means supporting individuals so they can grow food,” Ohio State University professors Shoshanah Inwood, Andrea Rissing and Florence Becot report for The Conversation, a site for journalism by academic researchers. “Our research indicates that health care and child care are two crucial ingredients for a successful food system.”
Two-thirds of farmers have underlying health conditions, and one in three farmers have a family member whose health problems make farming difficult. Though more than 90% of farmers have health insurance, that number “hides details that plague the entire U.S. health care system, Inwood, Rissing and Becot write. “In addition to farming, half of all farm families have at least one adult working an additional full-time job, often primarily to get health insurance coverage. It’s an affordable option, but pulls time and energy away from farm work.”
Health care expenses remain a big worry for farmers. Half of farmers said they worried they would have to sell farm assets to pay health expenses, and many told the researchers they had gone to great lengths to stay eligible for public health insurance, including tactics such as keeping marriages secret. Some said they feel trapped because too much income can disqualify them for public benefits.
Child care is also a big concern for younger farmers.
“In a national study of farm parents before the pandemic, we found that two-thirds had struggled with the cost, availability and quality of child care. Surveying farm parents during the early months of COVID-19, we found 58% reported that taking care of children became harder during the pandemic – especially for women farmers and those with children under age 6,” Inwood, Rissing and Becot report.
“Women are one of the fastest-growing groups of farmers, and their role as primary caregivers influences a farm’s success. In our research, women were almost twice as likely as men to report that child care was an important factor in farm decisions, 44% compared to 24% among men.” The researchers also found that most female farmers with child-care problems operated small or medium farms and were much more likely to sell directly to consumers through avenues such as farmers’ markets.
“Over the last 10 years, farm families have told us that public insurance options, making insurance easier for self-employed people to access, universal health insurance, and affordable rural child care would help them grow better food and stronger businesses,” Inwood, Rissing and Becot report. “The Department of Agriculture announced on April 21 that it was beginning an effort to ‘improve and reimagine’ the supply chains for food production – including meeting the need of agriculture workers and addressing the needs of mid- to small-size farms. This an opportunity to integrate health insurance and child care as core infrastructure that supports the future of farmers and rural communities, along with the U.S. food supply.”