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Young farmers remain optimistic

Though confronted by numerous challenges, America’s young farmers and ranchers express a high level of optimism about agriculture and say they are better off than they were five years ago.

Those are the general findings of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 17th annual survey of young farmers and ranchers.

The young farmers, ages 18-35, said the availability of land and facilities, overall profitability and economic challenges continue to rank as their top concerns. However, reflecting a high degree of economic improvement, 89 percent of the respondents said they are better off than they were five years ago.

The survey was conducted during the AFBF 2009 Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference in February.

Though the prices for many farm products have fallen sharply since last year and the Agriculture Department is forecasting a 20 percent decline in farm income this year, most of the young farmers surveyed expressed optimism about their chosen profession.

Nearly half (48 percent) said they were more optimistic than five years ago, while just 20 percent said less optimistic and 32 percent said their level of optimism was the same.

Last year’s survey showed that 90 percent indicated they were better off than they were five years ago, roughly the same as the 89 percent in this year’s survey.

“We’re facing very challenging times this year,” said Mathew Meals, AFBF Young Farmers and Ranchers committee chair and a first-generation crop farmer from Newville, Pa. “In good times as well as bad, optimism is the No. 1 job requirement for being a successful farmer and rancher. Farming has always been a difficult and challenging business, but most of us wouldn’t trade it for any job in the world.”

In ranking a list of common challenges facing farmers and ranchers, the availability of land and facilities was the top concern with 21.3 percent of the respondents. Overall profitability and economic challenges was second cited by 17.1 percent. Government regulations was third at 12 percent, followed by urbanization and the loss of farmland (8.3 percent), willingness of parents to turn over the reins of the operation (7.8 percent), competition from established or larger farms (6.7 percent), healthcare availability and cost (5.7 percent) and challenges presented by animal welfare groups (5.2 percent).

Other challenges included topics such as availability of financing, labor availability and regulations, tax burdens, water availability and lack of rural services.

Regardless of those challenges, the survey also shows that 92 percent of the young farmer and ranchers see themselves as life-long farmers. In addition, an even larger percentage, 96 percent, say they would like to see their children follow in their footsteps. The survey shows that 80 percent believe their children will be able to follow in their footsteps.

The survey also points out that roughly the same percentage thinks the American public feels positive toward farmers and ranchers as those who believe the public feels negative toward farmers and ranchers, at roughly 36 percent each. The remainder of those surveyed said, “They don’t think about us.”

The survey also shows that America’s farmers and ranchers are strong environmental stewards, with 65 percent saying that balancing environmental concerns with economic concerns is critical to their operations.

The survey participants also use a number of management practices to increase conservation and environmental stewardship on their farms. Conservation tillage ranked highest on the list, with 54 percent of those surveyed using this production practice. Soil and tissue analysis was also important with 52 percent employing it.

Also, 55 percent said they do not plan to plant biotech crops this year while 45 percent say they will plant biotech crops.

The vast majority, 76 percent, believe that federal farm policy should direct that farm income come totally from the marketplace (both domestic and international) while 24 percent believe farm income should be supplemented by government farm program payments.

In addition, when asked what public policy initiatives would help their operations, strengthening private property rights was ranked as the top choice with 17.1 percent of the vote. Providing greater help for beginning farmers was second (15.4 percent), boosting agricultural exports was third (12.6 percent), followed closely by reforming or cutting federal taxes (12 percent).

The Internet was also vital to survey participants, with 100 percent of those surveyed saying they have access to and use the Internet for their operations. High-speed Internet is used by 64 percent of those surveyed, while 21 percent said they use higher-priced satellite Internet service and 15 percent said they are limited to slower dial-up service.

At 82 percent, gathering general news and agricultural news was the top use of the Internet by the young farmers and ranchers. Collecting buying information ranked second, with 76 percent of those surveyed using the Internet to aid in buying decisions. In addition, 53 percent of those surveyed make E-purchases. Also, 46 percent said they use the technology for political activity and 46 percent said they are plugged into social media sites.

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