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Fodder for Thought

Future Ranchers Lack Keys: Land, Livestock and Money

Incoming ranchers could also use the benefit of the wisdom of generations who’ve gone before.


We manage three things in ranching – grass (land), livestock and money. It’s a fairly simple model when you look at it this way.

However, if you are someone who doesn’t have one, some, or all of these three things, getting started in ranching can seem like an impossible task to achieve. If you are a beginning farmer or rancher you know exactly what I am talking about.

Access to the land and capital are the biggest obstacles USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) cites for beginning farmers in a report they released on January 30. The report showed that between 1982 and 2007, the number of farmers who operated farms for less than 10 years (USDA’s definition of a beginning farm) had declined with the number of young principal operators.

In addition, it was determined that the number of principal operators under the age of 35 had fallen from 16% in 1982 to an all-time low of only 5% in 2007. Another interesting fact to note is in 2011 the average age of beginning operators was 49, while established operators had an average age of 60.

While these numbers seem somewhat concerning, they also seem contradictory to the growing passion I see in so many young people for agriculture. The fact is that the numbers only tell us part of the story. They do not give us the details of what else is going on behind the scenes. Yes, access to land and capital are indeed challenges the next generation of agricultural producers face. But is this really the cause of the problem? I say, no.

This is the part where I tell you a story about a social media friend of mine, Chris Stelzer of Greeley, CO. He has a blog called Agricultural Insights. He also has a goal of getting started in ranching. To make this goal a reality he’s sought out some of the best of the best in the world of grazing to learn from; guys like Greg Judy from Missouri and Ian Mitchell-Innes of South Africa.

Chris recently attended the Colorado Farm Show in Greeley. There he sat in on a speaking session focused on cattle-industry topics. At one point, the conversation during the session turned to the how all of the ranchers in the country are old and tired and their kids don’t want to come back to the ranch.

Chris said questions like, “How are we going to keep our ranches alive?” filled the room.

A few older ranchers suggested partnering with or hiring young people to come work on their ranches. Being the aspiring rancher that he is Chris stood up to introduce himself to the room full of people and shared with them that he was looking to form a beneficial partnership with a rancher. He told them he would be in the hall if anyone wanted to talk further about the possibilities of partnership.

So he went in the hall and waited. Sadly, every single one of those ‘old ranchers’ – the same ranchers who earlier had been voicing their concerns about the future of ranching – walked right by. Not one stopped to talk. Not one was interested. Chris explained the thing that stuck with him the most from this whole experience was how isolated he was.

In one of the books I’ve been reading lately, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield, Savory states that when trying to identify the cause of a problem, you must identify the root of it. He also says this is not a simple task.

Many times symptoms, or the effects, of a problem can appear to result from several causes. However, like the rest of our world, cause and effect is not so simple. Instead it is a complex network extending infinitely in all directions.

After hearing Chris’s story and many others from young people who have experienced similar situations I am beginning to think the numbers and conclusions from the USDA report above have misidentified the root cause of our problem. The land, the livestock and the money are just things we need to make our goal a reality. Having any or all of these things does not guarantee success.

However, not having the support and the shared wisdom of the generations before is a sure-fire way to set us on the wrong path.

Chris’s story said something very clear to me. No matter how much people keep talking about young people being the key to agriculture’s future success that’s still all it is, just talk.

I don’t know about you but I have had enough talking. I am ready for some doing.

Maybe Chris is right … maybe he is crazy and I am too. But maybe that’s what it takes to make the future of agriculture better for everyone.  As Seth Godin says, “The most effective, powerful way to envision the future is to envision it, all of it, including a future that doesn't include your sacred cows. Only then can you try it on for size, imagine what the forces at work might be and then work to either prevent (or even better, improve on) that future and your role in it.” 

Maybe what is really needed is a paradigm shift. Only time will tell. Either way, I have faith the future of agriculture will be nothing but better, whether or not previous generations can let go of their sacred cows.

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