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Why Some Young Workers Are Leaving White-Collar Jobs for Farming

Topics: Career Profiles

There was a time in the United States when it was very common to work as a farmer. In 1820, 72 percent of the workforce was employed in “farm occupations.” By the late 1980s, that figured had fallen to just about 2 percent.

The industry is aging, too. According to the Labor Department, today the median age of farmers in the U.S. is 55.9 years old. But, that might be starting to change. These days, a growing number of young workers are going into farming, and they’re often leaving behind desk jobs to do it.

Farmers Are Getting Younger

The number of farmers aged 25 to 34 increased 2.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data, per the Chicago Tribune. This is only the second time in 100 years that the number of farmers under the age of 35 has increased. These young people are already starting to have a real impact on this challenging industry.

“There’s real power in the young people and what they’re bringing to this, and to the agriculture, which is a tedious, tiresome, labor-intensive, and low-wage industry,” Henry Gordon-Smith of Blue Planet Consulting told Civil Eats.

There aren’t enough young farmers in this new generation to replace the ones who are retiring. But, the shift could “contribute to the growth of the local food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape,” according to the Chicago Tribune article.

They Aren’t Your Grandfathers’ Farmers

Many of these young farmers didn’t grown up on farms, as farmers often did in years past. Perhaps that’s why they’re open to doing things a little differently. This group is far more likely to grow organically, operate small farms, diversify crops or animals and to be involved in community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets.

Other young farm workers are finding work in places like warehouse farms. Indoor agriculture, which utilizes techniques like vertical farming, hydroponics and aquaponics, is expanding in areas in and around cities.

“Food jobs have steadily left our cities for the past 100 years, and local food demand is driving production that is now bringing some of these jobs back to the communities in which their food is produced,” Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, told Civil Eats. “This has no downside for urban markets—it only increases jobs and economic activities.”

What They’re Leaving Behind

Perhaps these young farmers aren’t just moving toward rural farms but also away from office life, and the workday grind that goes with it. Of course, farming is unbelievably hard work. But, it’s a very different kind of experience than what workers encounter in white-collar employment.

“I wanted to have a positive impact, and that just felt very distant in my other jobs out of college,” 32-year-old farmer Liz Whitehurst told the Chicago Tribune. “In farming, on the other hand, you make a difference. Your impact is immediate.”

More than 50 percent of millennials say they would take a pay cut in order to find work that’s aligned with their values. And, 75 percent say they feel that businesses are focused on their own agendas not on improving society. One way to reconcile this is to leave office life behind and blaze a new trail.

Some of these young workers have even been bold enough to leave city life behind and try their hand at rural midsize farming. They might not have the numbers to replace the farmers who came before them, but they might revolutionize our agricultural system just the same.

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