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Boomers contribute to rise of smaller farms

Albert Roberts and Carey Hunter operate Pine Stump Farms.
Albert Roberts and Carey Hunter operate Pine Stump Farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture is taken every five years; the census is considered the gold standard for farming facts and figures. A census was taken in 2012, but the analysis won’t be released until February.

The average age of farmers was 57 in the most recent available census, taken in 2007, up from 54 in 2002.

Agriculture experts anticipate that the average age of farmers will actually go down when the 2012 figures are released.

The reason? Younger people are going into farming, mostly small, part-time farming, as part of the organic and buy-local movement.

“New farms, on average, have 201 acres. The average age of a new farm operator is 48. Only a third of the new farm operators list farming as their primary occupation,” Scott Yates, communications director of the Washington Grain Commission, wrote in his analysis of 2007 census data.

Carey Hunter, 65, operates Pine Stump Farms in Okanogan County, 12 miles east of Omak, Wash., along with her partner, Albert Roberts, 58. She is on the board of Tilth Producers, a Washington organization of organic and sustainable farmers and supporters of organic farming.

“We like nature. We like local food. We like to know what’s in our food,” Hunter said in a recent phone interview.

She says some of the boomer-age farmers she’s met through Tilth Producers got into farming as encore careers; many, like her, are first-generation farmers, and many still work at other jobs.

Like conventional boomer farmers, they face a shortage of grown children hoping to take over the farms.

“I have three kids. None are drawn to this,” she said.

Hunter predicts that more boomer-age farmers, both conventional and organic, will pass on their knowledge and passion to the next generation of farmers – family members and nonfamily members.

Hunter and Roberts sponsor internships for people interested in learning about farm life and sustainable agriculture; this is a practice growing in popularity among people with organic farms.

“I picture us mentoring an enthusiastic generation of young farmers who care enough to do the hard work,” she said.

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