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The Impact of Young Farmers on Sustainability

Randall Watkins, co-owner of Watkins Farm in Oxford, N.C., is one of the youngest farmers and owners at Happy Dirt Organics. And at age 35, he is considered a young farmer in North Carolina and around the country. Believing deeply in the important role of young farmers in a sustainable food system, Happy Dirt is committed to encouraging and partnering with young farmers in order to meet the needs of present and future generations.

So, why are young farmers important to sustainable agriculture? 
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 57.5 years. Only 8% of farmers in the U.S. are 35 or younger. In our home state of North Carolina, only 4% of farmers are 35 or younger. What does this mean? As farmers begin to enter retirement age, there aren’t enough young farmers to fill their boots. It’s very challenging for young people to start a career in farming because it’s expensive, hard to access land, and there’s minimal support for new or young farmers in terms of experiential education and technical assistance. 

Purple and white sweet potato flower budding through the huge leafy green vines.
Sweet potato flower in one of Watkins Farm sweet potato fields. Edible sweet potatoes don’t produce flowers often. When they do, they typically open right after daybreak.

When it comes to a successful sustainable agriculture model, the following three goals are measured: environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. If a farm meets these three metrics yet doesn’t have a farmer to take the lead when the older farmer retires, then the farm cannot sustain itself.  To that end, we consider the average age of farmers in our network a helpful indicator of our own sustainability and resiliency. We’re happy to report that from 2004 to 2014, the average age of our farmers came down from age 56 to 48 – and that was even before Randall became one of the youngest members of the Happy Dirt family.

How did Randall become a farmer? 
Randall’s grandfather owned a tobacco farm in Oxford, North Carolina. Randall recalls spending time and working on the farm as a child, “I chose to work with my granddaddy and to learn. The dirt taught me.” His grandfather eventually passed ownership of the farm to Randall’s dad, and Randall helped farm the land until it was time for him to attend college. His dad wanted him to go to N.C. State, but Randall chose to stay behind to follow in his grandfather and dad’s farming footsteps. 

Five sweet potatoes dug up from red dirt, about to be pulled from the soil by their long green stems.
Freshly dug sweet potatoes.

While his dad focuses on the family’s farm equipment company, Randall tends to the farm. Besides growing conventional tobacco and wheat, they grow organic sweet potatoes, which Randall introduced a few years ago in order to diversify the farm. After starting with just a few acres in organic production, as of 2020 the family now has 100 acres in organic production of Covington and Garnet sweet potatoes. Randall is thinking about experimenting with purple sweet potatoes in the future as well. 

Randall’s largest competitor in the farming community. 
There are approximately 15 farmers left in Randall’s county in NC. One would think with such a small amount of farmers, the competition to grow and sell would be stiff. But, it’s not a neighboring farmer who Randall sees as competition, it’s the housing market. He does wish to own more land on which he can farm; however, like previously stated, it’s hard and very expensive for young farmers to access land. With housing developments popping up in rural areas as aging farmers sell their land, young farmers like Randall can’t compete. Once agricultural land is developed for another purpose, it isn’t financially feasible for the land to be redirected back into agriculture. 

Happy Dirt farmer in watch over his leafy green sweet potato crop. Two generations of farmers, younger in the back, older in the front, standing next to a wash basin on their family farm in eastern NC.
Left: Randall Watkins, Jr. stands in the sweet potato field, talking about why he chose to grow organic sweet potatoes and what it takes to grow the crop. Right: Randall Watkins, Jr. stands behind his dad, Randall Watkins, Sr., in the pack house.

With two kids ages twelve and six, Randall has the opportunity to raise another generation of farmers to teach the importance of land stewardship and to pass on family ownership of valuable farmland. “I want my kids to know where their food comes from and they enjoy helping on the farm,” he says. 

Happy Dirt’s commitment to sustainability.
We are committed to the sustainability and resiliency of not only our company, but also of our customers and farmers. Having young farmers like Randall as a farmer partner is crucial to maintaining this commitment. The only way to sustainably meet the increasing demand for fresh, organic produce is by making sure young farmers have the opportunity to own and focus on the plow!  “By partnering with Happy Dirt, I’m able to focus on growing beautiful sweet potatoes,” says Randall. “With Happy Dirt being the point of contact and the buyer, it takes me out of the middle and allows me to focus on producing for stores all over the U.S. They partner with us farmers to make sure that we succeed.” As we continue to work with Randall, we hope that more young farmers will see Happy Dirt as an innovative and sustainable way to have a future in farming.

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