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Published January 25, 2011, 11:35 AM

Ag needs young blood in rural areas

Sure, wheat, corn and cattle are common on the Northern Plains, but the prairie’s leading staple may be gray hair.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Sure, wheat, corn and cattle are common on the Northern Plains, but the prairie’s leading staple may be gray hair.

In the past year, I’ve written about aging farmers, ag educators and grain elevator managers.

Other agricultural occupations aren’t immune. For instance, the fine folks at the North Dakota State University Extension Service recently detailed their organization’s need to attract a new generation of agents. Some of us in the region’s small cadre of ag journalists aren’t exactly youthful either.

An aging work force isn’t unique to agriculture, of course. Many baby boomers, or the roughly 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964, are nearing retirement, and that’s affecting other professions and economic sectors.

That said, agriculture faces a major challenge in attracting talented young people to replace the folks nearing retirement.

Finding young adults willing to work in ag isn’t the issue. Ag is doing well financially, unlike the overall economy, and that’s generating growing interest from students and job-seekers.

But will enough young people with the desired skills want to live and work in small, rural towns?

My guess is, fair-sized towns (let’s arbitrarily say ones with 1,000 or more residents) and towns near a city will get the young aggies they need. But it’s harder to imagine that happening in itty-bitty towns out in the boonies.

Livin’ in the city

There’s nothing new about young adults from small towns going off to college and enjoying the greater selection of shopping, entertainment and restaurants in the city.

What’s different is that the gap between what’s found in the city and in small towns has grown.

A young businessman in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city, told me last year that he and his family have no interest in moving to a small town. He grew up in one and has no real desire to return. What’s more, his wife had made it clear that she never will live in a small town or permit their children to do so.

“My family isn’t unusual,” he said. “The small towns just don’t offer enough anymore.”

I also think of the farmer, nearing retirement, who recently told me that his adult son won’t be returning to take over the family farm in a remote part of the region.

“He’s fine with the farming part. It’s just that he really likes living in the city,” the aging farmer said.

Two anecdotes hardly provide a meaningful sample size. But such stories are commonplace.

Going home again

I realize some small towns are fighting the good fight. I’ve written about a few of them. Way to go, folks in Crystal, N.D., and Page, N.D.

(Do you live in a small farm town that’s working hard to survive? If so, drop me a line; I’d love to hear about it.)

But if you’re familiar with this part of the world, you recognize that a lot of small towns are toast. You’ve seen their vacant lots and empty, crumbling buildings, you’ve breathed in their abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here atmosphere. You know in heart and mind that these towns are limping to the grave.

The towns’ travails aside, the nearby farms and ranches are doing fine. Vets, agronomists and other ag professionals still are needed. But when the aging pros already in place retire, will enough young people with the right skills move to the dying towns and replace them?

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote.

Well, in this case, talented young people probably can. The question is whether they want to.

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