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Senior Farmers Find Opportunities and Obstacles

Kent Ian Paterson November 19, 2018
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Senior farmers benefit from food trends, but they navigate turbulent times and formidable challenges.

Growers Maria Paroz and Kay Steffens won’t let foul weather stop them. “We went through wind, rain, mist and snow yesterday. You think the postman got it bad!” Paroz exclaims, detailing a recent day at a New Mexico farmers’ market. Yet equally determined customers, “tough people,” awaited the weekly goods, she adds.

Aged 55+, Paroz and Steffens produce and market food in innovative ways. And they’re far from alone among an estimated two million U.S. farmers. According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the average age of the U.S. farmer reached 58. Due out in 2019, updated census results will show if the aging trend continues as expected.

Entering farming after other careers, Paroz and Steffens nonetheless have agriculture in their blood. Paroz’s biological parents were migrant workers. Steffen’s dad started a farm outside Albuquerque in 1935.

Nowadays, the women sell fruit, vegetables, flowers and spices they harvest at farmers’ markets where many of their regular customers are seniors, too. Possessing attentive ears, the women tailor value-added products to customers’ tastes and needs.

With diabetes in mind, Paroz monitors the sugar content in the jams she makes. Steffens dehydrates lettuce, kale and other greens into a single product for use in soups and assorted dishes. “That’s the scientist in me,” quips the former sports physiology professional.

New Openings for Senior Farmers

The New Mexico growers are part of a nationwide trend of smaller farmers who sell directly to consumers. Since 1994, the number of such markets has increased from 2,000 to more than 8,600 nationwide today, according to the Farmers Market Coalition and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Whether at farmers’ markets and/or in organic farming, opportunities exist for older producers. The Kansas-based Central Plains Organic Farms Association recently projected the organic market growing at 14 percent annually during the next three years.

Youthful complaints about high organic food prices don’t resonate with older consumers, says Catherine Gordon, outgoing manager at an Albuquerque market where Paroz and Steffens sell.

“I seldom hear that from a senior because they know it’s better to pay a few pennies for your food than (on) pharmaceuticals,” the longtime food activist adds.

Health and Safety on the Farm

Despite new openings for agriculturalists, numerous obstacles confront senior farmers. Geographic isolation from farmers’ markets, labor shortages, climate disasters, trade wars, low commodity prices, rising land prices and lack of access to USDA programs cloud the picture.

Caregiving, health and safety rank high on the list of challenges. Gordon is leaving her job after eight years so she can attend to her elderly husband. Gordon’s predecessor left the market for similar reasons, she adds.

Purdue University’s Dr. William Field says the declining physical sharpness of older adults helps explain why more senior farmers are dying in accidents in his home state of Indiana. In 2016, Purdue’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program documented 44 farm fatalities, with 23 of the victims aged 55 and up.

A quarter of the fatalities involved part-time farmers, including retirees from other professions who are unfamiliar with typical farm machinery. The average farmer’s age is higher than in “any other hazardous occupation” such as a police officer or miner, according to Field.

The Midwestern scholar urges greater public attention on safety for older farmers.

A former resident of Illinois corn and soybean country, Maria Paroz appreciates occupational hazards. “Up there, you’ll see people with missing fingers, arms,” she recalls. Acknowledging she’s suffered her share of slips and slides, Paroz offers advice: “…know where your hands and feet are at, and watch out for sharp objects.”

Lorette Picciano, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Rural Coalition, a multi-ethnic network of small farmers, says finding affordable health insurance before Medicare eligibility is problematic for some members.

“I think (quality, affordable health insurance) is a huge concern across the farming population,” concurs Matt Perdue, spokesman for the 200,000 member National Farmers Union.

Sticky Retirement Transitions

Additionally, Picciano and Perdue rate land transference as a prime concern of older farmers.  Longstanding relationships with relatives, tenants and neighbors can influence the ownership transition from a retiring farmer to a continuing one, according to Perdue. Land prices, loan availability and land title questions among sectors like Oklahoma’s African American farmers also matter, Picciano adds. Farmers require a “succession plan,” she says. “In a way you got to help older farmers if the younger ones are to succeed.”

Like Picciano, Perdue supports closer collaborations between beginning and retiring farmers. Although some programs exist, more are needed, the NFU spokesman says. “There’s also a desire of a lot of farmers to be a mentor and guide during the first few years of a transition…,” he adds.

All the pitfalls of working the land aside, many older producers show no sign of retiring anytime soon. Kay Steffens, for instance, plans on installing hoop houses as a countermeasure to a changing climate. “I enjoy it,” she says of her farm life. “Besides, digging in the dirt is good therapy.”

Kent Ian Paterson

Kent Ian Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region. He was a 2017 fellow in the Journalist in Aging Fellowship Program sponsored by the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.

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