A Battle Worth Fighting

How the future of small family farms can be secured by our veterans through a win-win mentoring operation

By Dulanie Ellis

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America's returning veterans can be our next generation of farmersAmerican farmers are aging out." We were just starting interviews for a new documentary and I wasn't exactly sure what "aging out" meant, but it didn't sound good. Then the statistics started rolling in. Only 1 percent of Americans grow the food we eat, and half of them are ready to retire. There are eight times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 35. And then came the coup de grâce: In 2012, the USDA suggested we'd need 100,000 new farmers in the next 10 years to fill the coming gap. But the popular call is now for 1,000,000. Are you kidding me? A million new farmers?

Agriculture's got a problem. We eaters have a problem! Especially those of us who want to eat real food, food that has not been routinely poisoned, food that doesn't play genetic roulette in our gut, food that has heritage qualities of flavor and nutrition.

"You know, people talk about organic food like it's for the lifestyle of the rich and famous," says army veteran and chef-farmer Matthew Raiford, "but really, it's just good food for everyone." Matthew and his sister, Althea, a navy vet with a heavy-equipment license, are restoring their family farm in coastal Georgia. The Raifords know about generational farming and passing down knowledge; their land has been in the family since just after the Civil War. Because of the land's history, theirs is one of only two African American–owned farms awarded a Georgia Centennial Family Farm certificate. As two young adults aspiring to farm, they were the lucky ones. The matriarchs in their family simply handed them a gift deed to the land—land that needed the next generation of farmers.

But what about the farmers and ranchers who are reaching the end of their productive years when their land hasn't? The land is still yearning to be planted, tended, and harvested. What happens to farmers in their 60s whose kids have gone off to the city to do something other than the hard work of farming? Farmers who want to grow old on their land, but who need help to manage it? Where do they turn? Who can take over the reins?

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