There is a lot of talk today about how agriculture will feed the world in the not too distant future. The focus, and much of the debate, has centered around what technology we should use. Missing from this discussion is the question, “Who is going to use this technology — who is going to farm the land?” A recent study sheds a disturbing light on the lack a young people entering agriculture. While young people are pursuing career in ag economics, animal science, plant pathology, international trade, ag law and the like, few are headed back to the farm to work the land.
A study by the Society for Rangeland Management focused on the problem in Wyoming and other western states, but highlights trends that are occurring in all of American agriculture. They reviewed decades of United States Census data, sorting it into classes based on worker age. They then mapped the results to pinpoint both state- and county-level trends. They found that more than half of today’s farm operators are older than 55. In all but two counties in Wyoming, farming has attracted ever fewer people 34 years and younger. Most counties have also seen drops in the 35–54 age bracket. As a result, the average age of farmers and ranchers has increased in every county in Wyoming since 1920.Based on their results, the authors forecast a bleak farming future: no operators younger than 35 by 2033 and an average age of 60 by 2050.
Similar trends are evident here in the Midwest where the high price of land and equipment make it difficult for the next generation to get into production agriculture. But the problem is more than economics. There has been a cultural shift in agriculture that has reduced the number of young people who want to work the land. Retired Vo Ag teacher Don Sturgeon told me in an interview that 30 years ago most of the students in his class had a burning passion to go back and take over the farm. He said students today have a much different view of agriculture, with more interest in science and business. With fewer farms today, the need for farm operators has declined; and, as a result, more and more young people are being encouraged to look into other careers in agriculture. But, has the pendulum swung too far?
The authors of the Rangeland study asked, “So how do we inspire a new generation of agriculturalists?” The FFA, a leader in ag career development, has noticed this trend and is beginning discussions on how to encourage more young people to consider a career in production agriculture. Indiana Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann has said, “We need to make agriculture exciting again.” She stresses that local communities need to provide opportunities for young people to come back home and build careers, especially in agriculture.
In addition to a social shift, there are policies that are hampering the entrance of young people into production agriculture. While some USDA programs provide low interest loans for beginning farmers, it is the risk that is keeping many young people from taking on a career as a farm owner. Noted market analyst Bob Utterback told me the pork industry provides a good example. He stated, “Profits are good right now and will likely be there for several years, and getting into pork production is a relatively low cost venture. But many younger farmers are afraid of what the government will do in the future with regards to regulations and restrictions.” According to Utterback, it is a rare breed on young person who wants to take on the hard work and the high risk involved in production agriculture.
Those individuals need to be identified, encouraged, celebrated, motivated, and provided the tools to succeed. We need federal, state, and local policies that help young farmers manage risk and that provide some level of long term assurance. We need more people like Jolene Brown, a nationally recognized consultant helping farm families transition farms to the next generation. Technology will play a key role in the future of agriculture to feed the world, but having enough land and people willing to work the land is also vital for our future food security.
By Gary Truitt