Liz Whitehurst, 32, dabbled in several careers before she ended up crating fistfuls of fresh-cut arugula in the early November chill.
The hours were better at her nonprofit jobs. So were the benefits. But two years ago, Whitehurst — who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and graduated from a liberal arts college — abandoned Washington, D.C., for a 3-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods. Experts say it could have a broad impact on the food system.
For only the second time in the past century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture.
This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.
“We’re going to see a sea change in American agriculture as the next generation gets on the land,” said Kathleen Merrigan, head of the Food Institute at George Washington University and a deputy secretary at the USDA under President Barack Obama. “The only question is whether they’ll get on the land, given the challenges.”
The number of farmers ages 25 to 34 grew by 2,384 — that’s a 2.2 percent increase — between 2007 and 2012, according to the 2014 USDA census, a period when other groups of farmers — save the oldest — shrank by double digits. In some states, such as California, Nebraska and South Dakota, the number of beginning farmers has grown by 20 percent or more.
A survey conducted by Merrigan for the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group, shows that the majority of young farmers did not grow up in agricultural families.
They are also far more likely than the general farming population to grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify their crops or animals, and be deeply involved in their local food systems via community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets.
Today’s young farmers also tend to operate small farms of less than 50 acres, though that number increases with each successive year of experience.
Whitehurst bought her farm, Owl’s Nest, from a retiring farmer in 2015.
The farm sits at the end of a gravel road, a series of vegetable fields unfurling from a steep hill capped by her tiny white house. Like the farmer who worked this land before her, she leases the house and the fields from a neighboring couple in their 70s.
She grows organically certified peppers, cabbages, tomatoes and salad greens from baby kale to arugula, rotating her fields to enrich the soil and planting cover crops in the off-season.
Finances can be tight. Whitehurst concedes she’s given up a higher standard of living to farm.
“I wanted to have a positive impact, and that just felt very distant in my other jobs out of college,” Whitehurst said. “In farming, on the other hand, you make a difference. Your impact is immediate.”
That impact could grow as young farmers scale up and become a larger part of the commercial food system, Merrigan said.
Already, several national grocery chains, including Walmart and SuperValu, have built out local food-buying programs, according to AT Kearney, a management consulting firm.
There are also hopes that the influx of young farmers could provide some counter to the aging of American agriculture.
The age of the average American farmer has crept toward 60 over several decades, risking the security of midsize family farms where children aren’t interested in succeeding their parents.
If today’s young farmers can continue to grow their operations, said Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist at Ohio State University, they could bolster these sorts of farms — and in the process prevent the land from falling into the hands of large-scale industrial operations or residential developers.
“Multigenerational family farms are shrinking. And big farms are getting bigger,” Inwood said. “For the resiliency of the food system and of rural communities, we need more agriculture of the middle.”
It’s too early to say at this point whether young farmers will effect that sort of change.
The number of young farmers entering the field is nowhere near enough to replace the number exiting, according to the USDA: Between 2007 and 2012, agriculture lost nearly 100,000 farmers between 45 and 54.