Oct. 28, 2014

Documentary spurs discussion on the future of farming

When buying produce at the grocery store, most of us have only a fuzzy idea of where the items lining the shelves came from. James Moll’s new documentary, “Farmland,” which follows the daily lives of six young farmers, bridges the gap between producer and consumer.

“Farmland” made its Ithaca debut Oct. 27, followed by a panel discussion with local farmers, Cornell faculty and Cooperative Extension members.

The group of farmers depicted in the film was diverse, ranging from a cattle rancher whose family has been in the business for six generations to a first-generation founder of a community-supported agriculture program. All, however, were under the age of 30. These farmers represent a minority in an industry in which the average age is about 55.

The panel addressed some of the challenges that keep young people from becoming farmers. One problem cited by the film and again by the panelists is land ownership: Most young people cannot afford a sizable tract of land.

“Land ownership does not have to be the only model that we build farming on,” said Mike Baker, beef extension specialist and owner of a beef farm. “In New York we have … between 1 [million] and 3 million acres of underutilized land. Much of that land can be leased.” He emphasized that a farm is in essence a business, and that young people interested in entrepreneurship should consider farming.

Farming does seem to be catching on among young people. Emmaline Long ’12 noted that the types of students studying agriculture have begun to change. “When I first started in 2008, most of the people in the program were from farms or had some sort of agricultural background,” she said. “Now … the majority of the people in that major are … interested in agriculture and are coming here to learn more about it.”

As one of the subjects of “Farmland” said, it takes a special sort of person to run a farm. The complete lack of control over the weather and the market can make the job stressful. “You only have one chance each year to produce the best crop you can produce,” said Russ Carpenter, a local farmer. The task seems daunting, but for some it offers a chance to be creative and inventive. “My attraction to farmers has always been how ingenious they are,” Baker said.

Although it may not be for everyone, farming offers rewards seldom found in other lines of work. Margaret Smith, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics said: “To me the takeaway is the tremendous pleasure of watching things grow and being engaged with something that’s as fundamental to our lives as food.”

Rose Linehan ’17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.