Program encourages young ranchersWritten by Saige
The Wyoming Agriculture Ownership Network (WAGON) is a new program launched this year and is now accepting applications for candidates who are interested in starting their own ranching operation.
“It’s a program to help young people get involved in agriculture,” said Director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture Jason Fearneyhough at the Wyoming Stock Growers Convention in early June 2011.
The concept behind WAGON is to pair existing ranches, or mentor ranches, with beginning producers looking to start an operation. Through an application and interview process, the two sides will be matched, based on their interests and needs.
“I think it’s got a lot of merit,” says Program Coordinator Scott Keith of the Wyoming Business Council (WBC). “There has been a long time push from the standpoint of Stock Growers and other organizations to keep young people involved in agriculture.”
One of the initial committee members for WAGON and Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association Jim Magagna says, “It’s one really good tool to address the biggest problem facing Wyoming agriculture and that is ranch succession.”
“I feel like there is a need for this type of program in Wyoming,” says Rick Griffith, WAGON committee member and Wyoming Farm Credit Services Vice President “We need an option for producers who are looking to retire and need someone to take over their place. We also have a need to help the young producers get a start and stay involved in agriculture. It really is a very good two-way street.”
“There are a lot of older ranchers in Wyoming who want to stay in business, but don’t have the years to put into it and don’t have family to pass the operation on to,” adds Keith.
“On the other side of the equation, there are a lot of young people who want to go into ranching, but don’t have the capital to get into it or buy a ranch and livestock. Both deserve the opportunity, and the two sides need to find each other.”
Keith points out that 10 years ago, the age of the average rancher was 45 years old, but today, the average rancher is about 55 years old. The industry isn’t seeing enough young people pursuing careers in production agriculture, he says.
“The concept behind WAGON is to provide the network between established ranches and new producers, but also to provide some other support that goes along with it,” says Keith.
Keith adds that the program is set up to provide educational opportunities for young farmers and ranchers as well, including financial guidance and support, production education and farm management education.
“Different beginning producers are going to have certain needs,” says Keith. “The mentor ranches that we are looking to utilize will also have certain needs.”
“The idea started about two years ago with a meeting with Dr. Weldon Sleight of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture,” says Griffith. “We wanted to explore some ideas to see if we could implement a program in Wyoming similar to the 100 Cow program Nebraska has.”
According to Keith, the 100 Cow program was significantly adapted to account for diversity in Wyoming’s agriculture.
“We looked at the diversity across the state and decided that to require an education portfolio like in the 100 Cow program really just didn’t work,” says Keith, who notes the program’s education needs will be tailored to meet the needs of the new producers.
“After the initial meeting, we had Dr. Sleight speak at the Winter Stock Growers convention and saw some more interest in his program. We formed a committee from there,” adds Griffith. “We have met several times in between that first meeting, and there has been a lot of excitement behind the program.”
The WAGON committee includes seven industry partners. Farm Credit Services of America, University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, USDA Farm Service Agency, Wyoming Bankers Association, Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust have all played a strong role in the development of the program.
From that group, an advisory committee will be selected to conduct interviews with beginning producer applicants and match them with mentor ranches.
Keith notes, “My job as coordinator will be to assist in mentor interviews with the partner who brought them into the program. I also will sort and screen applications from the candidates.”
Currently, the program is accepting applications for beginning producers and is looking for potential mentor ranches. This year, the program will be selecting three or four beginning candidate ranchers to match with mentors.
“It’s gotten its start,” says Keith. “We are accepting applications right now for beginning ranchers.”
Mentor ranches aren’t required to submit an application, but rather go through an interview process.
Keith mentions that he foresees three main categories of applicants for the program.
“One of those is going to be young producers that are just coming out of college and have a farm or ranch background and are looking to get involved in production agriculture in Wyoming,” says Keith. “The second place I see them coming from is people that are already working as a manager or foreman on an existing investor owned ranch.”
The third group Keith anticipates applying for the program is people who have been working on ranches, but are looking for the opportunity to start their own operation. However, applicants aren’t limited to any of those groups and will be selected based on merit and the potential to match with mentor ranches.
“We’ll start the process of selecting candidates and doing interview as soon as applications begin coming in,” says Keith. “Each scenario is going to have different needs and different things that each partner is looking for.”
Keith emphasizes that committee will suggest mentor ranches to candidates, but will not be making the final selections.
“We are going to let the mentor and candidate make the final selection. It won’t be our choice whether or not they will work together,” says Keith. “They need to see if their ideas match and the length of time they want to go through the program matches.”
Keith says the program will also require a business plan drawn up between the two parties to facilitate evaluation of the program and to make sure WAGON works as it was intended to.
“We’re going to see where it goes right now and not start out in a big way,” says Keith. “As it grows and develops, we’ll see where it goes.”
“In the future, I would like to see several mentor producers and young, beginning producers be involved in the program,” says Griffith. “I would like to see two or three a year come together at some point in the future.”
“I think it’s going to be great,” says Keith.
Be on the lookout for WAGON’s new website, to be released soon. Applications for the first year of WAGON are due on Dec. 31.