Monday, October 21, 2013

Young Vs Old: Lack of Opportunity vs Commitment in Young People in Agriculture

I hear frequently that there is a lack of youth in agriculture and that the industry doesn't know what to do to increase the interest in the youth.

My response has always been that the interest on the youth side is there, but what do we have to work with?

If you are on a multi-generational farm then the problems are usually different than if you are starting from scratch. Mostly what I see is a lack on the part of the aging farmer to let the younger farmer get more of a leg up. I don’t want anything to be handed to us, I just want to see some hope at the end of the tunnel.

So when this article came through in a BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly email, I couldn't wait to read it. “Opinion: Is A Lack of Opportunity Or Commitment Keeping Young People Out of Ag?”

I totally agree that people romanticize farming and ranching and when it comes down to it, they don’t always want to put the effort forth that is required. But for those of us who live and breathe Agriculture and can see ourselves someday running our own spread, it can be difficult to read the following words:

“Why are so few of these would-be farm and ranch owners willing to settle for the next best thing: gainful employment or a professional, for-profit farm or ranch like mine? If they want real responsibility and real control over real assets, they can have that here.”

Now, I've only been a hired hand in a few places, but I can tell you that many times my opinion was not wanted, needed, or even remotely heard. So is it really fair to say that hired hands have any sort of responsibility? At the end of the day, no matter how fantastic they are, they will still have to have your permission to make many important decisions.

Level of Commitment is What Is Lacking

He charges the youth with not wanting to improve themselves once they get out of college, for not going to Extension meetings, trade shows, etc. Correct me if maybe I’m not the norm but isn’t that a load of bull?

I get at least 5 emails (many times more) a day from the major Ag outlets like BEEF, PorkNetwork, National Hog Farmer, AgWeb, Progessive Cattlemen,, and the list goes on. Seriously. In the span of 4 months I hit the NCBA meetings, World Pork Expo, and a regional farm show in Wisconsin. I am immersed in Ag news and happenings day in and day out.

But all of that immersion has still not magically opened up the gate of buying my own farm. Yes I am still in grad school and I would like to gain more experience by seeing how other operations are run before I embark on my own journey, but I haven’t found the rainbow that leads to my farm yet.

But let’s face it, I am dead broke. I barely get by each month. I want to pay off my current debt before I fall headfirst into debt trying to start my own farming operation.

Does that mean I lack commitment? Does the fact that I don’t want to work for somebody else for the rest of my life make me a horrible person?

I’m going to put it this way. Farming and ranching can be really tough to get into. It’s expensive, it’s a huge initial capital drain, and sometimes it takes a lot of time at an off-farm job to pay for that dream. But the biggest obstacle I see is the condescension from some of the older generation. They complain about the youth being lazy and having no ambition…but ya know what? I bet the generation before them said the exact same thing about them!

Just because we don’t do things the same way they have been done forever does not make us less ambitious or less willing to sacrifice. It just shows that times have changed and we are trying to change with them.

What really frustrates me is that a lot of the old farmers are just not willing to step down and let the younger generations have a go at it. There is one old farmer near Cody who is so crippled and in such bad shape he should have let the youth take over a couple of years ago, but he just refuses to let go.

I can’t say I won’t be any different in my old age. But you can’t complain about the youth not wanting to do anything and then turn around and make sure they don’t have an opportunity because you are knowingly and bull-headedly blocking the way.

When I worked for Dave I was lucky because he let me throw my two cents in all the time and we would discuss decisions. But even then my two cents weren’t always appreciated and were frequently shot down. And at the end of the day I saw limited growth opportunities so I set out to experience other situations.

I really just have a hard time believing a lack of commitment is the problem. It is just not that simple.

I read a recent article in National Hog Farmer (I will update this tomorrow once I have the issue in hand to give you more details) about a hog farm that was owned by employees and they shared equipment, could buy manure from the farm for their crops and then turn around and sell the crops back to the corporation. After a couple of years of working for the farm, there was always the option to buy into being an owner of the farm. As far as I can see, this is the best option for all of us young people who are willing to work for others but eventually want to be more than just the hired hand (no matter how important or how cherished).

Sure, maybe in some cases it is a lack of commitment. But I don’t think it is fair to downplay all of the obstacles that stand in the way. The resources available for new farmers and ranchers are increasing (grants and programs through USDA, local Farm Bureaus, state Departments of Ag, etc) but it still won’t be easy.

I guess all we young hopefuls can do is keep dreaming, keep learning, and keep working hard. Someday it will pay off, right?

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