Climbing the agriculture ladder

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A few weeks ago, I looked around the crowded room at the Northeast Ohio Dairy Management Conference and was pleasantly surprised: These farmers were young!

Granted, I’m getting older and my definition of “old” and “young” has shifted since I started at Farm and Dairy in 1985. But for all the doom and gloom we hear about the average age of farmers getting older, the statistic didn’t manifest itself in the attendance at this dairy conference. There were a lot of producers there in their 30s and 40s – some even younger.

Now you could say that “Dad” or “Grandpa” just sent the young pups to the conference, but I know a lot of these folks and they’re the owners and operators, or the managers, not just the next generation wannabes.

The USDA tells us that the average age of farmers is 54.3 years, and the department’s number crunchers are probably right – although the number is likely skewed because the Census of Agriculture counts only one operator per farm and that’s usually the eldest member of the farming family.

USDA adds that the proportion of farmers 55 and older has risen from 37 percent in 1954 to 61 percent in 1997.

No big surprise there. We’re all living longer and farmers can continue to farm – although usually at a scaled-back pace – well beyond the age when office workers or other laborers have retired. I rarely meet farmers who actually “retire.” Instead, they feed out some beef cattle or get called on to make the parts runs.

I am not, however, ready to proclaim agriculture is a dying industry – not if the dairy conference was any indication. The next generation is alive and well and farming.

Be warned, though, the younger generation of farmers isn’t a carbon copy of the retiring generation. According to a recent survey of young farmers, the top issues facing them aren’t solely farm business concerns. They’re concerned about time management and juggling family/farm obligations, family business transitions, and environmental and land use planning issues.

Today’s young farmer doesn’t want to miss all his children’s Little League games; he and his family place higher priorities on lifestyle and social amenities; he doesn’t want to be caught short of income in retirement; and he questions the commodity mind set.

Some things never change, observes Virginia Tech’s David M. Kohl in reviewing the survey data. Some couples commented that family issues, while not a problem, represent a “challenge.”

“Variables such as getting to see the financial records, defined responsibilities and dealing with the children who were not part of the operation were major challenges,” Kohl said.

The sticky business of “transitioning” a farm to the next generation, or including the next generation in the farm business decision-making, complete with all the information needed to make those decisions, hasn’t changed in the last 40 years. It’s hard to let go.

This generation will also face greater land use challenges, as urban sprawl and environmental regulations impact more farms than ever before. Some younger farmers will consider relocating the farm operation in order to remain viable.

The problems and challenges may change, the industry may change – but there are still young farmers out there who are passionate about farming. I know. I looked across the dairy conference audience and saw them.

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