USDA on Monday began the first in a series of Google+ Hangouts designed to facilitate conversation between the agency and its constituents.
Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden hosted the hangout, a web-based conference call, focusing on new or beginning farmers and the "changing face of agriculture" – a tagline heard several times during the USDA Ag Outlook Forum held last week.
Harden was joined on the hangout by Kate Danner, a corn and soybean farmer from Aledo, Ill., and Alejandro Tecum, representing the group Adelante Mujeres, of Forest Grove, Ore.
Harden encouraged the audience to engage with the panelists throughout the hangout using Twitter and Facebook, also part of an ongoing effort to interact with U.S. farmers and stakeholders through social media.
"Someone entering agriculture today probably needs a lot of different things than my dad did in 1960," said Harden, who grew up on a family farm in Georgia. "We've got to be modern, we've got to be flexible, we've got to be nimble."
Harden added that USDA is making efforts to steer new and beginning farmers in the right direction and ensure that they know what's possible and that, Harden said, "we want to help here at USDA."
During the hangout, Harden addressed the challenges young farmers face when attempting to break into agriculture and the roles these new farmers must fill to make a successful living.
Danner, a fifth-generation farmer, explained that her role on the farm was initially not what she expected – her plan was to earn a living off the farm. However, she soon returned to the farm to assume recordkeeping, planting, scouting and trucking duties on her family's 1,500 acres.
"My goal is to double the farm," Danner explained. "Every generation has doubled … I want to continue on that tradition." Danner noted that her decision to come back to the farm was easy, because she gets to work with her family every day.
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Harden, who shared her experience of being unable to return to the farm, said that shouldn't be a concern for today's youth.
"I'm really encouraged and inspired right now to try to help those who want to go back (to the farm) because I didn't see that I had the option to," Harden said. "I don't want that to be the case today. I want it to be different that it was for me."
Harden said that attitude is changing how USDA is responding to new farmers because new farmers typically don't have the land, money or first-hand knowledge from a family member to rely on.
Tecum, who assists in operating a non-profit educational program to help Latino women begin making a living farming, affirmed that land and inputs are a struggle for new farmers.
"The challenges are a lot," he said. "But the solution is for organizations to come together and work for the farmer."
Another challenge, Danner added, is that there is a misconception of what a farmer really is. She notes that in her mind, a farmer is a businessman or woman first – and that's key to the success of the farm.
Danner said she feels a "farmer" is an umbrella term that encompasses several things.
"You have to have all of your ducks in a row," Danner said. "After farmer, it becomes an environmentalist and after environmentalist it becomes an agronomist … there's just this huge chain of events of things you need to know."
To take on a farm as a beginning farmer, however, she said the best thing you can give to an operation when you are young is your labor.
"If you work hard you can make more money, you can make more friends who have access to capital – and you can grow your business in that way."
Harden agreed, underscoring the importance of business skills for a beginning farmer. She noted also that there are several questions that must be answered before trying to jump into farming, and research must be done on outlets like the USDA that can help.
"I would encourage folks to visit our website or one of our local offices," Harden explained, noting that there are microloans and high-tunnel programs that can assist a variety of farmers. Other efforts include value-added producer grants and marketing assistance in cooperation with food hubs.
"There's a lot of different things happening, so it kind of depends where you are, what you want to farm, do you have land, you need access to land … there's a lot of individual questions that need to be asked and answered to know exactly what direction to go in," she said.
But the business plan will be essential.
"I do encourage anyone thinking about getting involved in agriculture to remember that this is a business," Harden said. "It may be a family business, it can be a small business or it can be a middle-sized or large business. But it is a business. Use USDA as a resource as you contemplate what direction to go in."
Involvement outside of the farm
Outside of developing a plan and being realistic with available resources, Harden reminded beginning farmers of the importance of having a voice in the industry.
"Remember how important it is to be at the table," she said. "There are some tough issues ahead – labor issues, water issues, availability of land because of development and other stressors that are happening in agriculture because of extreme weather and adapting to that. All these things can and likely will impact your business in agriculture."
Participants on the hangout reviewed other questions that were submitted using the #NewFarmers tag on Twitter. Harden said she expected more hangouts to center on succession planning, cash flow and the farm bill in the future.
Review Monday's full discussion using the embedded video player on the first page of this story.