03/16/2011 06:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Increasing Age of Farmers Puts Our Food System at Risk

As 78 million baby boomers draw closer to their 60s and 70s around the country, it won’t be only Social Security or the U.S. health system feeling the strain. This increasingly mature generation will also put at risk another fundamental of American life -- the very food on our dinner plates.

Every five years, the Department of Agriculture conducts a census of the people and companies that grow our food. The trends might not surprise you, but the numbers certainly will:

  • The average age of farmers climbed to 57.1 years old in 2007.
  • The fastest growing group of farmers is those 65 years and older.
  • In 2007, there were nearly 300,000 principal farm operators who were 75 years or older. That’s six times the number of those under the age of 25.
  • Our food system sits on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of farmers in their 60s and 70s who are on the cusp of retirement. When they turn in their tractors, who will replace them?

    The scary truth is that industrial agriculture is failing to breed a crop of bright young farmers to take their place. In fact, from 2002 to 2007, the number of farm operators under 45 years old actually decreased by 14%.

    And having older farmers doesn’t just mean that we’ll lose their expert know-how in a few years. It also means that much of our food system is stuck floundering in the 1980s. Of farmers 65 years or older, only 39% report having Internet access. Imagine how effective you’d be in today’s globalized world with only a typewriter.

    Our food system desperately needs a fresher, innovative face. We need farmers with energy and passion who want to stand up to large, petroleum-based agribusiness. We need a bold movement among farmers to grow crops in a way that doesn’t poison the soil, coat our produce in chemicals, or make workers and consumers sick.

    Even while today’s largest ag companies look the other way, young, forward-looking farmers have begun to crop up around the country on their own. These amazing entrepreneurs know that they will inherit the damage done to our planet, and they are building a new, sustainable model for our food system.

    Some of the most impressive young food leaders made it into the pool of 265 applicants for NRDC’s 2011 Growing Green Awards. Many are urbanites turned green thumbs, like Ben Flanner of Brooklyn Grange Farm, who established the first commercial-scale rooftop farm in the Big Apple. Others are working to influence purchasing, like Yonatan Landau, who has helped build an activist network of college students who are turning their universities toward sustainable food sourcing.

    NRDC will announce the winners of its 2011 Growing Green Awards right here in April, so stay tuned. You can check out some previews of the other finalists here, here, and here. These exciting young food leaders are just beginning to ripen.

    See last year's winners of the 2010 Growing Green Awards: