Generational Farming – Shifting the Standard for Sustainable Succession

Generational Farming – Shifting the Standard for Sustainable Succession

Passing down the reins to their children and grandchildren has been a long-time farmer family practice – in fact over 90% of farms in the US are family-owned, making Generational Farming the norm in American Agriculture. Skills are taught to children and grandchildren through lifelong application where each new generation is generally expected to trust and respect the knowledge of their predecessors, without questioning or altering their practices. There is an unwritten understanding that: if this is how it has always been done, who are we to suggest otherwise?

The emerging generation of young farmers are now being faced with a dilemma – as the world is shifting, the detrimental effects of conventional agriculture on both our climate and our individual health are becoming impossible to ignore or deny. As we face up to this harsh reality, we also understand that the fault does not lie with our parents or grandparents – that the methods they implemented, while widely unsustainable in nature, were born of good intentions.

generational farming family walking on the farm

The Harmful History of Farming

As world populations have grown throughout history, technological advancements in farming that led to increased production were generally seen as positive – little thought was given to the potential long-term damage they may create. Often, we only realize these things too late, and agriculture is no exception. It is now becoming commonly accepted that “early farmers often worked land in ways that depleted its fertility. Technological innovations like irrigation and the plow brought enormous gains in productivity, but when used irresponsibly they degraded soil—the very foundation that makes agriculture possible” (1).

Farming methods are not the only issue, however – there is much to say about the widely accepted use of synthetic fertilizers, even to this day. While fertilizer use has helped tremendously in boosting crop yields and feed the ever-growing world population, we cannot deny the effects that these products are having on our health. Not to mention the steadily rising costs associated with them are making it more difficult for farmers to make a living.

Much of our modern illness and disease can undeniably be linked back to chemicals found in the air we breathe and the food we eat. The system we are caught in runs deep, and reversing the damage is a lot more complicated than simply ceasing any one specific practice. Even natural fertilizers can be problematic when we consider that “the consumption of fresh produce from fields fertilized with manure from antibiotics-treated animals can spread resistance genes to the human gut microbiome and further the emergence of multi-drug-resistant human pathogens” (2).

spraying chemical fertilizer on the farm with a tractor

A Perspective Shift Toward Sustainability

There is an emerging philosophy that is permeating through the industry, that “the aim of modern agriculture should be to maintain and improve the health of the global human population, not simply to produce enough calories to feed the world” (3). With this perspective gaining momentum, a few things are happening as a result. Conventional family farms are facing the issue of younger generations being more apprehensive to take on the family business. Perhaps some may not be willing to learn these conventional methods in a time where they are being widely questioned; or they are simply overwhelmed at the idea of having to learn new sustainable methods on top of an already labor-intensive livelihood, especially with the wide variety of other career paths available that require less effort or learning curve.

It is encouraging to note, however, that as this generational gap may be widening in conventional farming, a new emergence of organic and regenerative farmers is simultaneously growing. There is an undeniable movement happening in younger generations who are taking much interest in returning to the land and learning the benefits of self-sustainability – even learning how to make careers within the movement itself. Market gardeners, small-scale regenerative farmers, and even homesteaders are creating a small but ever-expanding wave that is changing the face of agriculture and shifting the industry toward a more positive timeline. In fact, “in 2017, there were 908,274 new and beginning farmers producing on over 193 million acres of land, [making up] more than a quarter of all producers in America [that had been] farming for 10 years or less” (4).

The once solid bridge between generational farmers is becoming a succession gap that requires a new foundation. The new generation of farmers (and their predecessors) need to understand that while their parents and grandparents may still be a wealth of useful knowledge, the educational aspect of bridging this gap needs to become a two-way exchange. It is time for the older generation of farmers to pass along their knowledge, but with a heart and mind open to trusting that younger farmers with an increased sensitivity to climate, soil, and human health issues will take the reins in a way that integrates this new perspective. This new generation understands quite well that the methods they implement will directly affect their lives and those of future generations.

While outgoing farmers may display a resistance to these changes, they must also see that the movement is building, with or without them: “As food insecurity grows and our climate continues to suffer from the effects of industrialization, consumers are demanding that their food comes from responsible sources” (5). As a result, to keep their businesses profitable for the next succession, they need to shift with the times or risk being left in the degrading soils of the past.

Turning the Tide Toward Soil Health

The process of turning this situation around cannot be solely the responsibility of farmers – while they have the power to implement the changes, they need resources to help get the ball rolling. This aligned focus needs to happen beyond the agriculture industry, with governments and policymakers stepping up to provide financial and educational support toward more sustainable practices (7).

While governments are beginning to get on board by adding dedicated budget plans and policies that highlight sustainability in agriculture for the sake of mitigating climate change – more attention needs to be given to educational programs that focus on how these regenerative practices can be applied in a practical way. We also need to gain a better understanding of how each part of this important and necessary collective movement is intrinsically connected:

"Medical professionals need more education on nutrition and the positive impacts of an organic, whole-foods diet based on human health and regenerative organic farming methods. Farmers need more education on regenerative organic techniques and the potential for the food they grow to contribute to revitalized human health. Consumers need more education on how nutrition impacts their health, how farming practices impact the items most readily available to them, and how their buying habits will influence the quality and availability of future resources. Policy makers need to support governmental programs and policies that encourage positive change instead of subsidizing suboptimal practices" (3).

Arguably the most important focus for farmers should be shifting the way they manage their soil – as historically, conventional agriculture has “mismanaged this essential resource, sometimes with catastrophic results” (6). Reducing the use of chemical inputs and rebuilding soil health (using natural soil amendments and regenerative practices that restore the natural microbiology of the soil) need to be at the top of the list for young farmers who are looking to keep their family business thriving without contributing to this ongoing problem. While it may go against what they have grown up learning, the new generation must be willing to try something new. Educating themselves will give them the reassurance and confidence in knowing that there are indeed sustainable solutions that allow them to maintain high yields (and profits) without degrading the ground they grow in over time.

father and son inspect crops on the farm

The resources already exist, and global movements related to the importance of soil conservation are consistently growing and gaining more and more interest with every passing day; but more effort needs to be made to bring these various entities together to start collaborating more efficiently. Building this new foundation for the bridge of succession in agriculture, must become a collective effort that stretches beyond just those involved in the industry itself. It is only through collaboration that we will find common ground – and can begin to cultivate new ideas in soil capable of growing them to fruition.

***

If Soil Health and Sustainability are topics that interest you, we highly recommend the following educative resources to get started on your journey of learning:

Conscious Planet – Save Soil Movement

Dr Elaine’s Soil Food Web School

Rodale Institute

Farmer’s Footprint

 

Sources:

  1. https://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/history-of-agriculture/
  2. Healthy soils for healthy plants for healthy humans.pdf
  3. https://rodaleinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/Rodale-Institute-The-Power-of-the-Plate-The-Case-for-Regenerative-Organic-Agriculture-in-Improving-Human-Health.pdf
  4. https://specialtycropindustry.com/cultivating-a-new-generation-of-farmers/
  5. https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/ca/pdf/2021/06/the-next-generation-of-farming-is-here-kpmg-in-canada-en.pdf
  6. https://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/crops-and-ecology/
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/03/big-agriculture-climate-crisis-cop27

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