Production agriculture isn’t a career choice for the weak or timid. It requires a huge investment, great financial risks, unwavering discipline and patience to grow a business that could take decades to really get rolling.
Yet, for those who are willing to tackle the challenges, there are great rewards to being a steward of land and livestock. While profitability should obviously be a priority, the intangible benefits like being your own boss, working with the soil, breeding for calves that suit your goals and raising a family in the country are certainly added bonuses to this career choice.
Despite many young peoples’ desires to be involved in production agriculture, a recent survey of 3,517 young producers under the age of 40 revealed that there are thousands of young people ready and willing to farm, but too many roadblocks are getting in the way.
The survey, conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) and 94 partner organizations, indicated that the top challenge of young farmers today is land access, particularly in finding and affording land on a farm income. This reason, the survey showed, is also the main reason why farmers quit farming and why aspiring farmers haven’t started yet.
“America desperately needs young people to repopulate our farm and ranch lands,” said Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at George Washington University and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, in a NYFC press release.
“This survey reveals the daunting challenges they face. As policymakers sit down to write our next farm bill, I hope they pay attention to these survey findings. If nothing more is done to help transition young people into American agriculture, we will be importing all our food.”
Merrigan added, “Things are changing in American agriculture and our perceptions and policies need to keep pace. This survey reveals that it’s no longer Old MacDonald of storybook fame. Rather, it’s Ms. MacDonald, a college graduate who didn’t grow up on the farm and considers her farming practices to be sustainable or organic.”
NYFC is urging lawmakers to enact a new policy called the “Young Farmer Agenda,” which would address land access and affordability; help young farmers manage student debt; increase the skilled agricultural workforce; enable farmers to invest in on-farm conservation; improve credit, savings and risk management opportunities for young farmers; and address racial inequality among farmers.
As Congress works on a new farm bill, these are certainly hot topics that should be addressed and discussed. I would also add health care costs as a major concern on this list that need to be fixed sooner rather than later.
As a young producer myself, I can certainly relate to these challenges that the next generation of farmers and ranchers face; however, I am skeptical that Congress can and should fix any of these issues.
While the challenges I face are dramatically different than the ones my grandfather did, I still firmly believe that capitalism, not some mandated rule book to pave the way for me, will still sort out the winners and losers. I don’t need or want a handout, but I would like a chance to succeed.
What that means for me is this: If I want to be successful in production agriculture, I need to build relationships with neighboring ranchers who are nearing retirement age; I need to be active in local, state and national organizations and discussions in policy change; I need to work harder and smarter, invest my dollars wisely and, to be honest, I better not quit my writing job either, if I want this business to cash flow.
I’m thankful that young producers are on the agenda to be discussed by Congress, and as rural communities, this is perhaps something that should be focused on locally, as well. What can we do to support rural schools and businesses? What opportunities are there for young people and their growing families in these small towns? Does our rural area have the infrastructure for high-speed internet access, an important tool for agricultural careers, working remotely and having access to market reports and more?
If we want the next generation to produce our food, these important questions must be asked and answered.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.