Bees were put on the endangered species list, recently, along with certain butterflies. Some say a virus is killing them off. Others argue the fault lies with pesticides or a decline in habitat. The way builders are carving up agricultural land to erect houses makes me think a loss of habitat is part of the reason they and other species are in decline, including some humans. “Overall the number of farmers in the U. S. has been shrinking steadily. (“This Land Ain’t My Land,” by Karen Angel, Bloomberg Businessweek, 12/12-18, 2016, pg.38.)
One reason fewer farmers are raising crops is the rise of the tenant farmer, young idealists imbued with the idea that food should be good for us, raised without pesticides and sold to the consumer at the peak of freshness. Given a paucity of affordable acreage, young hopefuls lease plots from farmers who, in turn, find it easier to rent land rather than grow crops. Over the last few years, the number of tenant farmers has grown from 9 to 22 percent, depending upon the state . (Ibid pg. 38.)
Working as a tenant farmer isn’t easy. Renting land is expensive and making improvements is risky. One young man spent $20,000 to dig a well only to learn his landlord had decided to sell the property.(ibid pg. 38.) Despite the gamble, the market for organic food, which stands at 5% at the moment, is climbing. Farmer’s markets, too, have proliferated, helping to sustain tenant farmers. Also lucrative are food co-ops and restaurants that focus on local produce. The USDA sees the trend as important enough to provide $130 million a year to assist and train beginning farmers. Another $1.5 billion is available in the form of landownership loans. (Ibid pg. 3.)
Despite the USDA’s help, parcels of land for sale are limited. Most of the young farmers remain tenants. One benefit exists, says a young woman who’s been wielding her trowel for five years. She can always walk away if the venture doesn’t work out.