The Pinke Post: Family farms need to be inclusive to stay viable
Do you ever make conversation with your car service driver? I usually do not, but in late February this year, I had the best Uber driver experience I've had. I've thought of the driver a few times since then and wished I had encouraged a bit more than I did.
I was taking an Uber from the Orlando, Fla., airport to a hotel for the Commodity Classic, a convention of soybean, corn, wheat and sorghum farmers and their respective associations and checkoff organizations. The man driving, Danny, was friendly but not pushy and simply asked what brought me to Orlando, probably recognizing that I wasn't going to Disney World with the lack of a family with me. I said I had an agriculture conference to attend.
Danny immediately perked up. He was the son of a Kentucky tobacco and soybean farmer but had been away from the farm for 20 years. He had a college degree, had worked for Disney for years and drove Uber as an extra side job. As we drove along the freeway, he shared his story and I listened.
We were born the same year. I had just turned 40 and he was turning 40 this spring. Our farming dads are similarly aged in their 60's. This year is the first year his dad will not grow tobacco and he will only grow corn and soybeans now, Danny said. I suggested Danny invite his dad to join the Kentucky soybean and corn associations and said I have a friend who works for the soybean group. Then next year, Danny's dad and him should attend Commodity Classic together. I explained I would be seeing my farming parents from North Dakota at the Commodity Classic and they were awaiting my Uber arrival. Danny was shocked to think of farmers from all over America coming to learn and share together.
He said, "I wish my dad would attend to learn new ways of doing things but I doubt he ever would." Danny went on to explain his own desire at times to return to his Kentucky roots and farm and that his other siblings weren't interested in farming. He said he knows his dad could sell the family farm or rent it out. But sometimes, Danny said, he thinks it's him who should farm. He remembers so much work from his childhood and formative teen years but isn't sure he could do it now.
And then it was quiet. Danny paused. I sat in silence as we exited and pushed on towards my destination.
Danny spoke again and said something to the effect of he wasn't sure he would be accepted back at the farm and didn't know where he would learn new techniques of farming.
I explained university Extension education programs and young farmer groups as possibilities for him. Then Danny said with a laugh, "But I would be a gay farmer in Kentucky. Do you know any of those?"
I shared in his laugh and said, "I do not but I know we need a next generation in agriculture and that can be you."
We were pulling up now to the hotel. My parents were standing outside the building awaiting my arrival. Danny got out to get my luggage and I introduced him to my farmer dad and quickly shared about Danny's roots and that he was the best Uber driver I ever had. My dad smiled and greeted him. Danny waved and drove away.
Days, weeks and now months after I have thought of Danny. Why? Because I think I should have said more at the end to him. I wanted him to know agriculture has a place for him. Did he hear that from me? I probably will never know.
The 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, shows U.S. farmers are getting older with an average age of 57.5 years old, up 1.2 years from 2012. There are 2.04 million farms and ranches, down 3.2% from 2012; 96% of farms remain family owned. There are 321,000 producers 35 years old or younger. Of course, Danny could be in those statistics in five years when the next Census of Agriculture is taken.
Is there a place for a gay farmer in Kentucky? Absolutely, Danny. We need all kinds of farmers for a next generation.
I hope Danny finds his way back to his roots on the farm he longs to run.