Where Are The Tree Fruit Growers?

Back in August I attended USApple’s Outlook event, a gathering of apple industry executives from around the world to talk about the US apple crop forecast (mostly red delicious). I have almost nothing in common with the average attendee of a USApple event (female, heirloom grower, low-input centered, no access to workers with visas), so I spent my free time reading articles from industry fruit magazines in order to ask questions and talk shop with other attendees. After a few articles, I stumbled on one I felt qualified to address in August’s Good Fruit Grower magazine titled “Developing Tomorrow’s Workforce.”

“Washington State University is teaming up with Washington tree fruit producers to convince young people that there are worthwhile careers in the tree fruit industry, and there’s much more to it than just picking apples.”

and later on in the article…

“Everyone says the same thing: We can’t find people. We’re looking for the best we can. A lot of times we’re retraining someone that maybe isn’t really qualified for some of the jobs we’re asking them to do.”

The more I am exposed to the apple world, the more I hear and see this on all levels. In the month of August alone, I received the plea of “Eliza, can you put us in contact with someone who might want to run our orchard?” three times. In July, I heard it twice. Commercial or more-than-a-hobby people with orchards are looking for help and having one hell of a time finding it. Why is that? Well, aside from a growing number of orchards getting planted by retirees, Dr. Kimberlee Kidwell says that agriculture has an image problem that deters students from considering careers in that sector. She gives the following reason for the image problem:

“People think they’re going to be involved in the harvest piece only, that they’re going to be doing hands-on labor that’s difficult and even not desirable.”

In my short few years as an advocate of young people growing fruit trees, I have yet to hear the reason of “hands-on labor” as a detractor from the job. Usually, having a hands-on job is desirable to the young folk. It’s exercise, fresh air, a lifestyle change…its all very romantic, which makes me think there is a cultural difference between East and West coast tree crops growing. Perhaps she is talking about the sons and daughters of migrant workers, whose parents only do hands-on work without any hope of something else? They know what physical labor looks and feels like day after day, for years on end, and probably don’t want a single thing to do with it. Or perhaps its also an issue of scale. Regardless, I have spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to figure out why horticulture is such an unappealing or difficult field for young people to enter and I agree… Agriculture has an image problem. This blog post is why I think conventional perennial ag is going to continue to have a hard time attracting young people. For all other start up orchardists: access to land, access to capitol, and the ability to wait for your crop to come in are major factors. But, as I said, this is just addressing conventional perennial ag.   

1.) The Generational Gap: My parent’s generation and sometimes their parent’s generation is largely missing from US agriculture as a whole. They are the generations who left the farm, which has interrupted the transfusion of agricultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Many of my friends who try to make farming a lifestyle have to literally start from scratch in knowledge acquisition, land acquisition, soil acquisition, etc.

Why not bridge the gap ourselves and go to the generation who has this agricultural knowledge? It might not be as easy as it sounds. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, Millennials have used a computer for all of it. By high school for me, the internet and cell phones were here to stay and changed communication forever (or until teleporting is a real thing). Texts, emails and various social media platforms are the primary form of communication for us. This is in contrast to the anti-computer generation of my grandparents and many of the apple growers still alive. Communication is almost incompatible, and there’s no age buffer between the two to help out. So, these older apple growers are simply having a harder time finding young people wanting to learn, and visa-versa.

And what if you find an old apple person to take you under their wing? Well, sometimes (from personal experience) they are burned out and will repeatedly try to push you out of the nest with sayings like: “There’s no money in apples.,” and “I think its best you become a nurse.”   As a white entitled millennial from a middle-class background, you also might not see eye to eye with them on their management practices, which are built upon the green revolution…

2.) Ecological/Consumer Ethics: The Millennial generation is one that has a social and environmental conscience. We get our news through the lens of social media, which often casts a dark light on GMOs, cancer causing agents sprayed on crops, inhumane working conditions, etc when the local news does not. As a generation, we’re largely not ok with implementing these practices unless we learned them before we had access to the outside channels. 

We believe that we can make a difference in this world we’ve grown up to view through social media, and this is reflected in our life choices and buying habits. Market trends are showing enormous growth in the organic, ethical and anti-antibiotic foods sector, with no signs of slowing down. We millennials are bringing about social and environmental change through our wallets as consumers; and if we can’t afford it, we do it as farmers. That’s why I became a farmer (for the most part). But you will no longer catch me working on a conventional apple farm that has no plans for rethinking the system. 

3. Access to Training:The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is an extraordinary organization in Maine which offers workshops, classes, programs and a phenomenal fair (Common Ground Fair) to encourage and educate people on how to live life in a more ecologically friendly way. In addressing the need to connect older farmers with young people, they created an apprenticeship program for inexperienced (and often young) people so they could get a sense of what the farming lifestyle is like. Support for young farmers, combined with affordable land prices and amazing product distribution has made Maine the most vibrant young farmer scene in the country. Young people flock to the state to grow in an alternative way to what we find in the grocery store; one that nourishes communities, the land, and consumers. However, there is a problem with all of this in relation to this blog post: It’s all about annuals and livestock. 

If you are looking for an opportunity to learn from orchardists who align with your values, you’ll spend a lot of time looking. Even in Maine, where I finished the MOFGA Apprenticeship program and entered into their Journeyperson program, I had one hell of a time finding someone who was willing to teach me the ways of growing a commercial organic apple crop. I ended up working for a season at a conventional orchard and after leaving that situation, joined forces with a talented homesteader to learn how I could take her methods and expand them to a larger scale. Annuals and animals are sexy right now and perennials are the red headed step child of the ag world. Stone Barns, NOFA, MOFGA, MOSES, SSAWG you name it… annual agriculture dominates the workshops and conferences, often without any mention of perennials. Yet growing perennials requires a completely different skill set from annuals and young people trained in annuals don’t necessarily have what it takes. They also don’t have access to free information about growing perennials outside of a conventional context (attn: land grant universities, extension agents). This is a problem!

The newest class of farmers are also conscious consumers. The idea of getting a millennial to work in a greedy good-ole-boy agricultural system which challenges their ethics as consumers and humans is almost laughable (in my opinion). Companies like Google and Apple are changing their work environments to attract and hold millennials; When will the time come that ag is forced to do the same? I guess one of the first steps in the apple industry is to stop growing red delicious apples. Millennials need to be able to stand behind a product they believe in. That product is not a red delicious apple. Want to know how to convince young people that there are worthwhile careers in the tree fruit industry? First, think growing ethics: You won’t convince me that spraying a fungicide is healthy for the environment, so stop trying to cite “science.” It’s not that I don’t use science in my decision making on a daily basis (I do), I just don’t trust your biased researchers whose salaries are coming from chemical companies. We live in a culture of bought journalism and I am paranoid. Second, think outreach: How will you reach a generation who lives on the computer? Through the internet! Bring out a campaign that will entice us.  Third, think incentives for these people to stay: Off the top of my head: end of the season profit sharing, student loan forgiveness (I’m sure the lobbying power of big apple can do something about this), freedom to experiment in the name of innovation (through SARE grant applications, etc), continuing education (conferences are a good start), healthcare, etc.

I’m not hopeful you can do it, Big Apple. My dream is that small farmers will be able to do it, though. It will take some long-term access to land, new perennial skill sets penetrating the established ag scene, access to capital, the right genetics for planting based on location, positive and informative advertising for consumers, networking with one another to create a new agricultural status quo, and #eatuglyapples.

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