USDA outlook forum looks at incorporating young farmers into agriculture
Arlington, Va. – “This is a terrific opportunity for us to visit with a number of folks who are working very hard to make agriculture opportunities available to new, beginning and young producers,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the 90th Annual USDA Ag Outlook Forum.
The USDA held their 90th Annual Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va. on Feb. 20-21. The forum’s focus was of the changing face of agriculture and the future of young farmers within agriculture.
The forum consisted of four panelists who shared their struggles, trials and errors when they entered the agriculture sector and their advice to young farmers who were thinking about taking the same path.
“I didn’t think that I ever really wanted to be involved in agriculture for the simple fact that I thought it meant solely riding a tractor for 12 to 14 hours a day,” commented Joanna Carraway, co-owner of Carraway Farm Families and recipient of 2013 Tomorrow’s Top Producer Horizon Award.
“I didn’t realize that there was a whole other life out there,” she continued. “Once I got to college, I realized that there is a whole other world that involved agriculture and that what I was doing on the farm was just a small part of it. I realized I could do more.”
“If an individual has the passion and wants to get into farming, the opportunity is there. It’s not impossible to start from scratch,” stated Greg Wegis, president of the Kern County Farm Bureau in California and recipient of National Outstanding Young Farmers of America Award.
Wegis mentioned water and land values are escalating in the nation, and particularly in California, producers are seeing a decrease in the workforce to help with a farm’s crops.
“A lot of land seven years ago was worth $5,000 an acre. Now we’re talking $15,000 an acre and $20,000 an acre to expand,” said Wegis. “We’ve also gotten 50 percent of our water for the last four to five years while we are paying for 100 percent.”
Connecting with consumers
“There are new, emerging ways of connecting with consumers,” said Emily Oakley, interim director of National Young Farmers Coalition.
The National Young Farmers Coalition began four years ago by farmers who were seeking representation and having their voices heard. The coalition is 23,000 members strong across the country with a presence in every state and a total of 21 chapters.
“We work on issues of policy and networking to make young farmers feel connected and technically supported,” said Oakley. “All of us are finding opportunities with consumers who want to know who grows their food and talk to them.”
A major outlet for these young farmers are farmers’ markets, where they can meet consumers who are interested in knowing where their food comes from and connect with agriculture that way.
“This is the direction that we’re hoping to head in as a Young Farmers Coalition to let people know that we’re here. A lot of us are first generation farmers, and we’re finding opportunities in agriculture,” added Oakley.
Oakley also encourages schools to start a Farm-to-School program to incorporate locally- or regionally-sourced fruits and vegetables in meals and to start school gardens.
“Definitely getting someone who has never seen growing food is an opportunity and getting them to grow it themselves, and then eat it, is one of the best ways of getting students interested in food and farming,” explained Oakley.
She added, “It gives them the opportunity to be self-employed and make their own decisions. It’s not just about getting their hands in the dirt.”
“All young farmers, especially first generation farmers, need access to land, capital and training,” explained Oakley. “Land is the single biggest challenge for beginning farmers.”
To help with access to land and financial support, Oakley suggested the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development program and the Farm Service Agency Microloan program.
Other options for beginning farmers are to place ads of interest to lease land and putting the word on the street of leasing opportunities.
“Even though the young farmers may not own the land they are farming, leasing is an affordable and accessible way for them to enter the agricultural business,” reiterated Oakley. “It also allows them to farm without a mortgage and gain experience to make them more eligible for loans.”
“Access to opportunities for training is the single most important thing for beginning farmers,” said Oakley. “They can go to college and study agriculture, but unless they go to someone else’s farm and learn from somebody who’s been doing this for years, they will not be successful.”
Carraway specified farming is not what is used to be 20 or 30 years ago, and it has become so dynamic financially, to the point where everyday contains a business decision.
Crop insurance and good bookkeeping skills have helped her become profitable and sustainable with her operation.
“We’ve had to utilize crop insurance a lot, unfortunately, and realizing how important it is, especially for beginning farmers who have so much on the line, producers have to have a plan B,” said Carraway.
Producers don’t have to start with something elaborate for their bookkeeping, it can be something very simple like an Excel spreadsheet or QuickBooks – anything that will help monitor the farm’s cash flow and income that is coming in or going out.
“Moving forward, insurance is going to become even more important as prices fall and margins become tighter,” advised Carraway. “We’ve got to become better managers and teach people, especially young people coming in, about the do’s and the don’ts of agriculture.”