MADISON — Ryan Clark is 13 years younger than the tractor he keeps parked in the field below his house in Rockingham County.
The 1974 International 140 is the first one he ever rode, and he couldn’t resist buying it when his grandfather’s estate was auctioned off after his death. Clark, 33, uses it so infrequently that a field of watermelons bloomed around it, trapping it in place for the foreseeable future.
Today’s project — setting up a drip irrigation system — wouldn’t need it anyway. The hard work of tilling soil into long, neat rows, running short feeder hoses down the rows and covering them with thin black landscaping fabric was done days before. All that’s left is to connect the feeder hoses to the main one and then to connect the entire hose network to a pump. His one-and-three-quarter acres is larger than a football field, but not by much. It shouldn’t take long.
On such a gray September afternoon, it’s hard to imagine a field like this blooming into a bright red patch of strawberries. A few weeks from now, Clark will plant seedlings that he expects to blossom into a crimson sea of berries he’ll see as he steps out of his house every morning.
“When we pick this field, it’ll be like, ‘I did that,’” Clark says. “You see the results of your hard work.”
Fridays are easy days. Clark will only end up working from 4:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. tending to poultry houses, checking on cow pastures and wheat fields across Rockingham County, and wrapping up a few smaller projects that had slipped through the cracks during the week.
Still, there’s a lot of work to be done before he gets his berries on the market. This is his first time growing strawberries, and although he thinks he’s doing everything right, he can’t be sure of how exactly they’ll turn out.
“It’s like watching your kid grow up,” he laughs.
Clark likes to say that no other job requires longer hours and harder work for less money than farming. It’s a hard claim to verify scientifically, but it’s true that farming has always been a tough way to make a living. Farming practices have come a long way since Clark first hopped on his grandfather’s International in the 1980s, but no new technology can completely replace the combination of hard work and luck needed to run a successful farm against unpredictable weather, pests and livestock behavior.
What’s clear is that, looking at the numbers, farmers and family farms are aging out.
The average American farmer is 58 years old and getting older, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s recently-released 2017 Census of Agriculture. Farmers like Clark who are younger than 35 make up just 5,572 — 7 percent — of North Carolina’s 74,958 farmers.
North Carolina’s farmers hardly need to look at a survey to see the nature of agriculture in the state changing. In places like Alamance County, dairies and cattle farms have become outlet malls and housing developments. In Rockingham County, where development has been slower, the biggest draw for people Clark’s age is a new outdoor adventure park with water tubing and camping.
“As these old farmers age out, young farmers aren’t stepping up to fill the gap,” Clark said. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think they’ll ever return.”
Despite Clark’s fears, many young North Carolinians still see the time as being ripe to enter the farming industry. The U.S.D.A.’s recorded number of young farmers nationwide increased from 257,454 farmers to 285,439 between its 2012 and 2017 surveys.
While even the most optimistic analysts don’t project these new farmers to replace the production lost by older farmers, midsize and family farms like Clark Family Farms may play a vital role in preserving North Carolina’s agrarian heritage in a time when an estimated 760 acres of farm land in N.C. are lost annually.
Travis Covington, 30, runs Hawfields Cattle Company on Alamance County land bought by his grandfather after the Korean War. For him, farming is a way to stay connected with his ancestors.
“(For) some of us, it is in our blood, and we will spend every dollar we can ever make just to keep it running,” Covington said. “Part of it is, we don’t know what else we’d do without it.”
Like many young farmers, Covington farms while maintaining a full-time day job — in his case, as a facilities employee at UNC-Chapel Hill. Almost two-thirds of America’s young farmers hold non-farming careers as their primary occupations, and only 21 percent perform no off-farm work in a given year. Clark only started farming full-time two years ago after working as a firefighter, an HVAC technician and a maintenance supervisor at Piedmont Distillers.
Covington plans to work at UNC until he can earn a pension before starting to farm full-time. That won’t happen for another 26 years, but he tears up at the thought of spending all day in his fields.
“If I don’t have cows, I miss them so bad I can’t stand it,” he said. “We’ll go on vacation, and five days in, I’m just ready to get home and check cows.”
He’s not alone.
“Cows are my tranquility,” Clark said. “Sometimes, I’ll come flip a bucket over and just sit and watch them.”
“The technology in farming excites me,” Clark said. “It terrifies me, too. Having to stay up-to-date is a challenge.”
Not all paths into agriculture are so meticulously laid out.
Justin Walker became the head of a farm at just 20 years old after his grandfather’s unexpected death left nearly 1,000 acres of corn, wheat and tobacco in Caswell County without a farmer. No one else in his family was passionate enough about farming to head an agricultural operation — especially not an unprofitable one at risk of foreclosure due to debts amassed during grandfather John Walker’s lifetime.
“Technically, I just inherited a problem,” Walker, now 27, said in a phone interview. “The first two years, I did really badly.”
Walker’s Caswell County neighbors figured he was too young to run a successful farm when he started in 2012. If not for his youth and willingness to experiment, however, his farm likely wouldn’t still be in business today.
Walker started studying agricultural sciences at N.C. A&T State University in late 2011, correctly assuming he might be the one to take over the farm once his grandfather died. Both in class and in the field, he learned that his grandfather’s approach to farming was not sustainable for a midsize farm.
He pivoted away from the farm’s traditional crops and became both a grower and distributor of table-ready produce. He now sells directly to consumers from his own market truck, which he funded through a grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International.
Walker calls his new operation Double J Farms after the first initial he and his grandfather shared. After taking a loss in his first year, Walker came close to breaking even in 2014. In 2015, the year he moved away from conventional crops, he turned a profit.
As his operation picked up steam, he often found himself as the youngest farm head at agriculture events. At a national conference in 2013, he learned why: As far as anyone could tell, he was the youngest independent farmer in America.
“I said, ‘That cannot be true,’ ” he said. “But they were saying that all other farmers that are in their 20s are under their father or grandfather or uncle or something else. You’re the only farmer that age on their own.”
If all goes well, Clark’s strawberry field will make about $10,000 at the market once it blooms. He’s done everything he can to set himself up for success, having spent countless hours both in the fields and on the Strawberry Growers Information page on N.C. State University’s agriculture website.
“You learn every day,” he said. “If you ever quit learning, you can forget it.”
Of course, the fact that he’s able to farm full-time at all means he’s already reaping the rewards of a decade’s worth of hard work. Other careers might earn him more money for the number of hours he works, but no other career would allow him to build his own business while maintaining that all-important sense of tranquility.
“It’s more about the lifestyle,” he said.
Part of that lifestyle is staying connected with other young farmers. Statewide and national organizations, including the National Young Farmers Coalition and the N.C. Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers program, exist to provide community and support for young farmers.
“(Our) program is all about raising up a new generation of engaged and energetic agriculture leaders,” N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten wrote in a statement. “If our young farmers are any indication of the future of agriculture, we’re in good hands.”
Like Covington, Walker is still waiting for his shot as a full-time farmer. His day job is at UPS, and he dreams of a day when he can “operate his farm at 110 percent.”
“Anytime I’m farming, I really don’t feel like I’m working,” he said. “I just feel like I’m pursuing my favorite hobby that I like to do and getting paid for it.”
Covington said this attitude highlights one of the most important qualities in a successful farmer: You have to be a little crazy.
“I laughed at my grandaddy and at his brother when they were old men and I was a little kid and they would think that way,” Covington said. “Some of us have it, and some of us don’t.”
Like in any job, there are bad days. “Having it” doesn’t make a July afternoon less sweaty, it doesn’t make a field easier to plow, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that a new field of strawberries will turn out perfectly.
“Some days, everything goes wrong,” Covington said. “Everything breaks, you hate it, and you question why you do it.”
When it’s good, though, no other high comes close.
“I’m going to calve in October, and it’ll be Christmas morning for two months straight,” Covington said. “Christmas morning is the closest thing I can explain it to, and that still doesn’t do it justice.”