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USDA works to attract millennials to farming

WASHINGTON — “How do we bring the brightest and best back to agriculture?” asked Pam Johnson, a farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, at the annual U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Outlook Forum in Washington D.C. 

It is no secret the U.S. farming population is shrinking and aging at an incredible rate. The topic came up several times throughout the event, but the presenters (both from USDA and private companies and groups) did not offer any one, clear solution. This issue is complex, and not the result of a single factor, but a few of the key points are:

  • Lack of interest from a younger generation for a rural, agriculture-based lifestyle.
  • Limited profitability for farmers (especially in recent years, given continuous declining markets).
  • Inability to get started because of financial hurdles (expensive equipment, difficulty getting a loan).

This is a problem that desperately needs to be addressed to ensure a reliable food supply in the U.S., and provide roughly $125 billion in exports (expected for 2016, says Chief Economist Robert Johansson). With the average age of the American farmer in the late 50s and fewer children returning to farm after college, who will continue to produce food products? How will the aforementioned issues be addressed?

A lot of attention was given to the level of interest from a younger generation. “How do you engage young people to be interested in and enter the food and ag industry?” asked moderator Sonny Ramaswamy from USDA of a panel titled “Ag Talent Pipeline,” directed at students and millennials.

Prompt interest

The first speaker, Jessica Jones from the Virginia Association of Agricultural Educators, focused on sparking interest in agriculture for K-12 students. As a former Future Farmers of America student, she spoke of the value of school gardens, experiences with farmers and other agribusiness, and providing food growing opportunities in urban environments. Many of the students that she deals with “think a loaf of bread comes from the grocery store, not a wheat field.” Developing an interest in students early prompts them to seek opportunities in agriculture later in life.

The next speaker was Jay Akridge, dean of agriculture at Purdue University, and his talk was focused on steering the best and brightest toward an agriculture degree.

In the U.S. last year, there were 58,000 jobs available for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, but only 35,000 graduating with those degrees. Many potential employers find that most recent graduates are not prepared for the jobs that are open, which is exacerbating the problem.

His solution (at Purdue, at least) is to recruit more heavily and creatively from the student population to choose an agriculture degree, and to provide more options for today’s learners.

He spoke at length about the changing landscape where a four-year degree on campus might not be worth the cost to some. So three-year degree paths, certificate programs, a combination of online and on-site training and other options for learning are all being used or examined at Purdue as a way to make learning more potent and attainable for today’s youth.

The final speaker for this panel was Tomesha Harrison, the Human Resources Lead for Bayer Crop Sciences.

Her topic was getting millennials to choose careers in high-tech agriculture. While her focus was on the lab and development side, much of what she discussed applied to overall engagement of the recently graduated and millennial community: they desire mentorship and ongoing training, being connected and doing something with a clear purpose.

She suggested focusing the narrative on the agriculture industry to being one where “we” provide food (so there is significance and purpose), focusing on continued growth in technology of seed and equipment, as well as farming practices (ongoing learning), and connection via social media.

Overall, this session provided a great, long-term plan to get young people engaged in agriculture, but challenges remain in getting people interested in the rural lifestyle and farming community.

The issue of farmer profitability was mentioned in different sessions. Prices are low, and have been weakening for most agricultural products for the past few years. The issue in attracting young people to farming might be more with the inconsistency of income, as weather in a given year could lead to huge income or huge loss, as opposed to lack of income potential altogether.

USDA’s approach to this issue is to reiterate and continue to improve its crop insurance programs. These were discussed, and continue to evolve, adding coverage options for specialty crops every year.

Finances

The last topic discussed was the financial hurdle to get started. Equipment is expensive. Getting a loan can be difficult. How does a young farmer get started?

The President of the Agri-Business division of First Dakota National Bank, Nathan Franzen said. FDNB provides free training for a year to new farmers on the challenges of running a farm from a financial perspective, has a program for estate planning and family transitions, and is looking to lower entry barriers for young farmers by reducing up-front loan fees and streamlining the loan process.

His insights into how his bank is working for the ag industry showed clear vision for how the banking industry is working with the farming community to get the younger generation involved.

This is a clear problem with a much less clear solution. Farmers are aging, engagement from younger generations is weak and there are significant barriers for those wishing to farm. But the USDA’s Outlook Forum did provide hope and potential starting points for the road ahead.

Editor’s note: Norton is director of risk management at Beeson & Associates Inc. in Crestwood, Ky. Norton can be reached at beesoninc.com and on Twitter at @beesoninc.

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