Old Farmers, Big Problems, Hacking the Farm Bill and an Innovation Sweet Spot

The average age of the American farmer is 57 years old. I learned that at a screening of The Greenhorns, a documentary about young farmers, which drew an SRO crowd last week at The Plant, Chicago’s vertical farm and food business incubator. Although filled with inspiring stories of dedication and organic bounty, that’s the little stat that popped out and stunned. 

Astonishingly, 30% percent of US farmers are over 75, while the number of those age 25 or younger keeps shrinking. 

Wake up and smell the impending crisis. The farmer shortage is the just the kicker to a long list of agricultural woes that range from topsoil erosion and dependence on pricey petrochemical fertilizers, to a global uptick in erratic and extreme weather, aquifers tapped and fracked, bees on the brink and GMO-mediated "superweeds."  

Global demand for food, of course, continues to soar along with the population, which means, one way or another, more will need to be done with less. 

Michael Pollan (The Ominvore’s Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and other famous foodies have been railing for years against the dangerous absurdities of a broken food system, yet it remains an abstraction for most of us. We don’t farm. We don’t see farms. We have no clue how corn goes from cob to can, or, for that matter, to gas tank. 

Our cluelessness provides the perfect cover for lobbyists eager to plant bumper crops of special interest subsidies in the Farm Bill, a twice-a-decade legislative opus setting food policy that affects pretty much everyone on the planet.

The Farm Bill’s bulk, however, isn’t quite the defense it once was. At a recent hackathon in New York, 120 techies, aggies and NGO’ers spent a weekend mining, sifting and translating reams of data into visualizations. Grey columns of long-buried statistics bloomed into colorful pie charts and graphs—inspiring the development of few apps along the way.

Clearly, it will take more than a weekend to properly analyze such a complex document, but it can be done. Beyond proof of concept, perhaps the most valuable take-away from the exercise is the compelling list of project ideas. My personal favorite? “Idea 8: Farm Bill Budget Cuts and Gains Visualized” from the team at Johns Hopkins. Oh the hours of fun that will be… (HT to Venessa Rodriguez). 

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Back at The Plant, six young farmers stood up after the film to talk about their lives. They work hard. They work long. They love what they do. And nobody makes much money. One farmer, who raises wheat on 80 acres in Iowa, worries that the high cost of health insurance may eventually prove to be one burden too many. 

Most were urban / peri-urban farmers, leasing a few acres, farming vacant city lots, planting indoor crops or mini-fields on rooftops. They sell at farmers’ markets and run CSA programs (community supported agriculture).

Their spirit is huge but the scale small. All told, local food production tallies in at a respectable-sounding $8 billion—but of a $1.25 trillion market, so loads of room for growth. It will take innovation—a suite of innovations—to transform it from a niche player into a key part of the food equation. 

Innovations, for example, such as Detroit-based startup Local Orbit, which is focused on improving the efficiency of local distribution channels. Its online platform provides marketing, sales, logistics and inventory management for food hubs, farmers, and community groups.

Founder Erika Block: 

We have spent the last 70 years using technology to create a centralized, hyper-efficient food system. It’s a system that feeds a lot of people and creates a lot of problems: pesticide run-off, obesity, salmonella outbreaks, dangerous low-paying jobs and the disappearance of family farms. 

There is growing recognition that the food we get from local farms not only tastes better, it’s safer and more nutritious. It promotes better land conservation and it strengthens local economies. 

Anybody got a problem with that? 

—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

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