Farming’s 'Next Generation' Shares Challenges on Ag Day

3/29/2014 7:00 AM
By Katelyn Parsons D.C. Correspondent

WASHINGTON — “The latest census states that the average farmer is 58 years of age,” said Randy Krotz, CEO of the U.S. Farmers and Rancher’s Alliance. “As an industry, agriculture needs to continue looking for ways to bring more young people into farming and ranching. After all, they are the future of the industry.”

Bringing that topic to the forefront, the alliance hosted a panel discussion on the next generation of America’s farmers and ranchers Tuesday in Washington. Coinciding with National Ag Day, the panel was also a lead-up to the feature-length documentary, “FARMLAND,” which was released Wednesday.

“The movie takes us into the lives of six young farmers and ranchers and gives us an up close and personal look at challenges they face,” Krotz said.

One of the panelists, Leighton Cooley, a fourth-generation poultry farmer from Roberta, Ga., was featured in the documentary.

“I had no idea of the magnitude of this video when I agreed to it,” Cooley said. “The documentary was able to capture the dynamic of a young person farming.”

Peter Liebhold, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which is in the process of creating an agricultural section of an exhibit, also spoke in-depth about the American young farmer and expanded into the challenges they face.

He said the industry is becoming highly sophisticated and that farmers have had to adapt along with it.

“Farmers must process a lot of information quickly and make a sound decision,” he said.

Liebhold highlighted GPS and hybridization of seeds as two technologies that farmers have had to learn how to use very quickly in order to make profitable farming decisions.

“Many people on the outside of agriculture think these tools make it easy,” Liebhold said. “In reality, they make it difficult.”

“There’s a lot of challenges for a person looking to enter agriculture,” Cooley said, citing land availability as the biggest challenge.

“Land is the largest capital expense to start a farm,” he said. “The Farm Credit system does an excellent job trying to remedy this situation with their young, beginning and small farmer program that offers financing for land and other capital investments to those just beginning a farming venture.”

Seth Pratt, a fifth-generation cattle/livestock rancher from Blackfoot, Idaho, cites technical training as a hurdle that beginning farmers and ranchers have to overcome as well.

“We train specialists,” Pratt said. “But how do we train farmers? There are just some things that we can’t teach in a classroom. That’s where real-life experiences comes in.”

Gaining experience from local farmers and ranchers is Pratt’s recommendation for anyone looking to become a farmer.

“Farm kids say that they want to go back to farming when they graduate college,” Pratt said. “Suburban and urban college graduates interested in farming say they want to become farmers. Experience is the only way they can become farmers.”

Cooley said those looking to enter into farming and ranching need to remember “you don’t become the boss on the first day.”

“FFA, Extension and 4-H does a great job getting youth and young people interested in agriculture,” Cooley said. “However, after college, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up like you would at any job. It just takes patience.”

Joel Mathiowetz, a corn, soybean, pea and lamb farmer, and Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation executive director, also said FFA, Extension and 4-H are important programs to help young people gain awareness of agriculture. But he admits that there is another component to continuing that interest: A solid foundation built on knowledge and experience.

“In the eighth grade my dad gave me 2.8 acres to operate,” Mathiowetz said. “Ever since, I have been a different person. It changed my livelihood including my risk tolerance.”

All of the panelists indicated that farming has influenced who they are today and that they hope to see their farming operations around for the next generation. To meet this goal, the panelists said they need sound, consistent, long-term policy.

“The main thing I want to see is consistency,” said Kate Danner, a fifth-generation crop farmer and an Illinois Soybean Association ambassador. “If we know what the policy is, we can work to change our operations now to meet those goals.”

Will Gilmer, a third-generation dairy farmer from Lamar County, Ala., said, “We need policy that helps us continue business.”

Besides sound policy, the panel also indicated that connecting with consumers will also be important in keeping their farming businesses viable in the future. Take Gilmer, for example, who has created more than 100 YouTube videos of his operation.

“Since I purchased a smartphone, I have been creating and uploading YouTube videos of my farming operation,” Gilmer said. “These videos are an excellent way to send messages. They allow for both a visual and an audio experience.”

Cooley agrees that video is an important communication medium for farmers. He feels the “FARMLAND” documentary is another example of visual and audio communications that’s helping spread farming’s message.

While farmers are tasked with many challenges, “This is one of the most exciting eras for agriculture,” Liebhold said.

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