As the challenges faced by modern farmers increase, so does the worldwide need for steady sources of healthy, sustainable food. The population is growing, yet less than 2% of Americans were farmers or ranchers in 2014, with the age of the average farmer hovering around 60.
Significant challenges within the agricultural industry turn many younger farmers away from the vocation: lack of funding and resources from budget-cutting federal programs, difficulties in securing arable land, and a changing climate are just some of the issues farmers face today.
However, there are also exciting things on the horizon for young farmers, as new ideas about conservation, technology, and health evolve the tens-of-thousands year old field.
To celebrate National Farmers Day on October 12, we sat down with farmer and newest BCCF team member Caitlin Etherton, who comes to us with a diverse background in agriculture, to ask for her thoughts on the job.
How did you first get interested in farming?
Caitlin: I studied pre-med in college, and then English and Creative Writing . . . I had an Ethics professor ask, what would you do if you didn’t have any limitations at all? And I automatically said, “I would be a farmer.” Which felt ridiculous, because I had no background in it at all. But I assume it came out of my love for nature, and all of my interest in medicine and health. It seemed like a really relevant, tangible way of approaching those fields, literally from the ground up, versus the flip side of treating ailments. More of an osteopathic approach, I guess.
What, in your opinion, is the most challenging thing about being a young or first generation farmer today?
Caitlin: Literally and practically, resources. I think land and money are some of the hardest challenges, to be honest. Obviously, it’s also a little hard because historically, the junction we’re at is that things were organically farmed 60 years ago, and we’ve just veered so far away from it. Now I feel like culturally, our country is starting to boomerang back to that way of growing, but a lot of the people who organically grew that way are getting to be 80, 90 years old. I feel like we’re lost a lot of invaluable mentors and resources - the (age) gap was just a little bit too big, which is really sad.
What, if anything, do you think needs to change about the farming industry as a whole?
Caitlin: This sounds unconventional, but I kind of feel like big, big picture, gap years would be a very productive thing. If it was more commonly accepted for students to have a gap year between high school and college, or during college or after, and if they had agriculture or horticulture options, if that was something they were interested in. I think that could be a really revolutionary change in the way that we think about education and vocation, and would maybe give a lot of young people the chance to see if it was an industry that they were curious about. *
What attracted you to the BCCF?
Caitlin: I was really attracted to it because it’s ripe with so much possibility, and it’s kind of fun, there are so many different things I could be involved with within the foundation, and I love getting the chance to farm somewhere that’s so centered on sustainability and conservation. . . it can be really hard on a production farm that’s farming for income to incorporate every single sustainable strategy all the time without the risk of losing money, among a million other things. I think one of the ways that the BCCF can contribute is by being able to help experiment with, or preserve, different techniques, cultivars, and ways of growing that would be too expensive for a small farm that needs to make money. That’s a pretty unique opportunity to have.
Are there any projects you’re excited about working on during your time here?
Caitlin: I’m really excited about growing native fruit and edible plants at the BCCF, like pawpaws, native passion fruit and juneberries and other things . . . we’ve also talked about growing plants in the walled garden specifically for book-making, and we’re talking about growing plants for paper-making and natural dyes.
*We will offer a full-time, paid internship to a graduating senior from Fauquier High School starting in 2020 who is interested in learning more about horticulture, farming, and the other work we do at Oak Spring. Visit https://www.osgf.org/opportunities for more information.
Source: Woolpert, Melissa. “The Greatest Challenge Facing Agriculture over the Next 5 Years.” https://www.usda.gov/oce/forum/diversity/papers/2015/MelissaWoolpert.pdf. Accessed 10/7/2019