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Guest Opinions

Youth in Agriculture

Written by Wyoming Business Council

Rebecca Weber rested one afternoon last summer against the log cabin her grandpa built 60 years ago.

Eyes closed, she breathed deeply. The air was fresh and warm here near the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie outside Lander.

As treasurer of the Wyoming FFA, Weber dedicated much of the summer to traveling in support of the organization. Here, blissfully, there were no vehicles for 45 miles in any direction.

Weber listened to the tear and crunch of grass between teeth as Bonner, her red roan Quarter horse, ate nearby.

This is what I love, she remembered thinking to herself. This is who I am, this is who I am going to be.

She wants her children and future generations to enjoy similar afternoons.

“I want to be a voice for agriculture,” Weber said. “Somebody has to stand up for our way of life and represent it.”

Weber is in her second semester at Casper College. She is working toward a degree in ag communications. Outside of school, the third generation rancher is participating in the Future Cattle Producers of Wyoming program. The program teaches the next generation the business of ranching. Participants learn production, marketing and leadership skills.

It is a rapidly changing business.

Census figures show the average age of a farmer or rancher today is 58 years old. The industry is shrinking as fewer and fewer young people enter the profession.

Global population is expected to reach nine billion people by 2050 at the same time climate change compounds issues like soil loss, damage from pests and pathogens and the availability of land and water, according to a January 2016 federal report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Current farming techniques would require an additional land mass the size of Canada to support the population increase.

“With the availability of land shrinking, technology is the only way we can keep feeding as many people as there are with the quality of food they need,” Weber said.

Science has always been inextricably linked to successful agriculture. Producers develop genetic lines, improve crop yields and create new tools in an effort to make their work more efficient. The ties between science and food are going to grow tighter in the future, agriculture experts say.

Record drought cost California $2.2 billion and thousands of jobs in 2014, according to the policy agency. A bird flu epidemic in 2015 killed more than 48 million birds and doubled egg prices nationwide.

The solutions to problems like these – better understanding of how pathogens spread, breeding of drought-resistant crops – are rooted in science, technology, engineering and math, the agency claims.

Meanwhile, ag jobs requiring a college degree outpace graduates by 20,000 positions every year.

“The United States faces a deficit of professionals with the skills to develop workable solutions,” the report states.

The agency recommends policies ranging from graduate student fellowships and corporate research grants to new training programs for K-12 teachers to bring ag topics into the classroom.

Wyoming agriculture experts say the next generation of producers has the mettle to face the challenges ahead.

The future of ag will need people like Weber.

“We’re really going to have to be our own public relations coordinators,” Weber said. “I really noticed it with my dad’s generation, they want to keep to themselves. They don’t care if others know what they do. But for us to progress, we need to let the public know what it is we are doing, the quality work we do and why we do it.”

Weber is encouraged that her peers are strong-willed, strong-minded and have high expectations of themselves. And, while she realizes some of the challenges young producers face – like market fluctuations and cost of business – Weber said the ag community’s values won’t change either.

“I hardly ever meet a bad person in ag. We believe in a handshake to seal a deal,” Weber said. “They are focused on the job and the land, and that’s all they want. I think that’s admirable.”