As Americans increasingly reject cheap, processed food and embrace high-quality, responsibly-sourced nutrition, hyper-local farming is having a moment.
Tiny plots on rooftops and small backyards are popping up all across America, particularly in urban areas that have never been associated with food production. These micro-farms aren’t meant to earn a profit or feed vast numbers of people, but they reflect the Millennial generation’s desire to forge a direct connection with the food they consume.
These efforts are an admirable manifestation of the mantra to think globally and act locally, but they miss the opportunity that is going on right now: the economics of branded local farms have changed, and technology in agriculture has led to a renaissance of independent American farming. Whether this means farming the traditional acreage of the Heartland or adapting to cutting-edge indoor farming methods, the result is the same: demand for real food is far outstripping supply. Highly-educated, entrepreneurial, and socially conscious young people have a great opportunity to think seriously about agriculture as a career.
On the surface, this advice sounds dubious, given the well-documented, decades-long decline of independent farming in America. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of active farmers in America dropped by 100,000 and the number of new farmers fell by more than 20%. Ironically, however, the titanic, faceless factory farms are barely eking out a profit. That often means that an independent 100-acre farm growing high-demand crops can be far more profitable than a 10,000-acre commodity farm growing corn that may end up getting wasted as ethanol.
The key to reviving America’s agricultural economy is casting aside the sentimental images we associate with farming – starting with what a farmer looks like. In recent years, many of the same technologies that have revolutionized the consumer world have fundamentally altered and improved the way we farm. Drones, satellites, autonomous tractors and robotics are now all at home on farms. As a result, tomorrow’s farms won’t just be part of the agricultural sector, they’ll also be part of the tech sector – and tomorrow’s farmers will look a whole lot like the coders who populate Silicon Valley…except with better tans.
The next assumption about farming we need to cast aside is what a farm looks like and where it will be found. The vast planting fields of America’s heartland are going to change by adjusting to grow real food with 21st century technology, but tomorrow’s farms will also be vertical and in or near our urban centers. By 2050, 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. As both a social imperative and a practical matter, it makes sense to grow food near these cities, rather than to waste time and resources delivering products from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
This will require innovative new technology that will create even more flexibility in the way we farm. With this in mind, I recently co-founded Square Roots, a social enterprise that aims to accelerate urban farming by empowering thousands of young Americans to become real food entrepreneurs. We create campuses of climate-controlled, indoor hydroponic farms in the heart of our biggest cities and train entrepreneurs how to grow and sell their food year-round. After their training, these young entrepreneurial farmers, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can qualify for larger loan programs as a next step to owning their own farm — either soil-based or indoor. Whether they move on to their own farm or another business, they are prepared to build forward-thinking companies that will become profitable and create good jobs.
We are investing in this initiative not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we are confident that agriculture is poised for explosive growth, and that technology and the power of locally branded farms will be the keystone to success. Just ask self-described “AgTech nerds” like Sarah Mock, who is a leader in the growing movement of Millennial entrepreneurs who see an opportunity in farming to achieve the double bottom line – value and values – that is key to solving our planet’s toughest challenges.
Private enterprise will lead this revolution, but the federal government must help fuel its growth. The 2018 farm bill is a critical opportunity. This massive legislation, renegotiated by Congress every five years, establishes the blueprint and funding priorities across America’s agricultural sector. Last year, Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan introduced forward-looking legislation called the Urban Agriculture Act that would offer protections and loan options that are currently available only to traditional rural farmers. Ideas like these are essential.
A future in which our food is safer, healthier and environmentally sustainable can exist alongside one in which our agricultural economy grows and creates good jobs for millions of American workers. The technologies and business practices of modern farming is spreading rapidly. The opportunity for a young farmer has never been better – and it’s a future we can all get behind.
Kimbal Musk is the co-founder of The Kitchen, a family of companies that pursue an America where everyone has access to real food. He sits on the boards of Tesla, SpaceX and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Follow him on @Kimbal on Twitter and @KimbalMusk on Instagram.