Our View: Cultivating the Next Generation of Farmers

May 27, 2015

“I find it very important that agriculture not be forgotten in my generation or any generation.” Those are the words of Tyler Bassett, a 16 year-old 4-H member from Idaho. He made that declaration before a Congressional subcommittee hearing last month. He was one of 17 4-H members who were asked to testify on the future of agriculture.

Poised and well spoken, these young people shared with members of Congress their passion for agriculture and described their participation in one of the oldest youth development programs in the country. They discussed the joys of caring for their animals and competing in livestock shows. They explained the challenges of growing crops with droughts and other weather-related problems; they expressed the value of research to improve crop yield with fewer resources; and they highlighted all of their outreach efforts to overcome the negative perceptions of agriculture and bridge the gap between consumer and producer.

“I have learned the importance of informing people about agriculture while they are young, so as to cultivate early understanding and support,” said Gabriella Germann of California.

Indeed, with 6 million strong in the 4-H program, the future of agriculture looks as strong as ever. Additionally, the National FFA organization increased its membership to a record of more than 610,000 students last year. On top of that, a new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in partnership with Purdue University, demonstrates that the next five years will be ripe with job opportunities for those graduates with expertise in agriculture and food.

But, if statistics are our guide, at some point this enthusiasm for agriculture starts to wane. The most recent census puts the average age of a U.S. farmer at 58 and the number of beginning farmers has declined by 20 percent since 2007.

As USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden explained in her testimony during the same hearing, “the question of how we build our bench in agriculture becomes ever more important.”

We have a strong foundation for building the bench in the 2014 Farm Bill. The new law prioritizes beginning farmers across all USDA programs by offering education, training, outreach, and mentoring programs to help them get started and to ensure their success. It increases their access to capital through lending assistance and improves their access to risk management tools like crop insurance.

But, this law needs to be fully implemented for any of this to matter. And, although the law is on the books for five years, it is likely to be under attack during the annual appropriations process. As Rep. Frank Lucas, the former chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, recently explained, “it’s that funding bill for USDA that creates a window of opportunity for people to attack the five-year bill. So, yes, we’ve got a farm bill in place for five, but every year for the full five, we have to defend the provisions in that process.”

Which brings us back to a probable cause for some of those glum statistics.

Farming is hard enough without threats from policymakers trying to eliminate the farm safety net. Because it doesn’t matter how good of a farmer you are, or how great a demand there is for your crop, if policy is crafted in such a way that jeopardizes your ability to survive a disaster.

Farmers need certainty in order to make important decisions about their operations and livelihoods. But, it’s equally important to provide certainty to our next generation of farmers and agricultural leaders. We can’t expect them to maintain enthusiasm for a way of life that’s constantly under attack.