March 30, 2012
Winding down a successful career and making time for hobbies, community and family are what most young people think of when imagining life at 60.
That's not the reality for most of America's farmers and ranchers, though. Many farmers continue to work well into their 70s. The average age of a farm operator in the United States today is 55 — and in New Mexico, it is over 57, the highest in the country.
There's nothing wrong with doing what you love late into life, but many stay active for a different reason: There is no one to take over the farm.
Today, America has three farm operators over age 65 for every one under age 35. Unless we recruit and retain new farmers, we will lose farmland and the contributions these operations make to our local economies.
In fact, these changes are already transforming some of our rural communities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National FFA Organization, also known as Future Farmers of America, share a crucial mission: cultivating a new generation of farmers and ranchers.
Our diverse agricultural industry has a place for young people of all backgrounds and interests. For example, the growing demand for locally and regionally produced food - now a multibillion-dollar industry — provides opportunities for young farmers, ranchers and cutting-edge food business entrepreneurs.
USDA is strengthening these opportunities with the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food management initiative. The initiative helps farmers get started at a local or regional scale, a less capital-intensive way to start than growing for commodity markets.
With 40 percent of U.S. farmers now located in metro counties, young people are finding innovative ways to market and sell their products to nearby population centers. They can farm small parcels of land, extend their growing seasons with low-cost infrastructure such as high tunnels and keep more of the profits to reinvest in their local community.
USDA programs such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program train new farmers in production, marketing and business planning. In 2009 and 2010, projects in 40 states helped add thousands of new farmers and ranchers to the ranks.
USDA farm operating loans help connect these producers with land; in the past two years, 40 percent of USDA's farm loans went to beginning farmers and ranchers. This work is only a part of USDA's broad portfolio, but it is critical to the future of agriculture.
It's an example of the department evolving and diversifying along with American agriculture .
More examples are included in our new online resource, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass at www.usda.gov/KYFcompass.
FFA has also evolved and diversified since its founding in 1928, and it is flourishing as a result. With more than 500,000 members nationwide, FFA offers agricultural education and training for young people in everything from communications to business planning to diversified livestock production.
Although the base of FFA is still rural, the organization has chapters in 18 of America's 20 largest cities. In fact, the fastest-growing segment of FFA is urban and suburban members, now comprising 10 percent of total membership.
From local food production to export marketing, FFA members are poised for success. The challenge presented by our aging farm population will require every tool in our collective toolbox.
We must recruit new farmers from both within and outside our farming communities. We must offer services and support to help them access land and credit, manage risk, develop revenue-generating businesses and adapt and innovate to meet new demands.
It will be hard work. But if we stay the course, today's young farmers can look forward to successful careers — as well as to the rewards of retirement.
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