We’ve all heard the stereotypical story in one form or another. Boy leads boring life on farm. Boy dreams of adventure. Boy feels destined for more than being just a “simple farmer.” Boy gets dream granted, usually through a trial or quest of some sort. Boy leaves farm for bigger and better things and never looks back. The end. Sound vaguely familiar?
The promotion of this ideology, while it may seem appealing to an audience on the surface, shows a very shallow viewpoint. Unfortunately, I believe this mindset is alive and well in our agricultural communities, but not for the ways that you may think. Allow me to elaborate.
I started off my college career at one of OSU’s small regional campuses before I transferred to Columbus. Most importantly, it was one the ag school’s campus, specifically catered to the small rural communities throughout the state perfect for the kids who wanted to get their associate’s and head back to the farm. In the words of one noteworthy professor “We have students here who think they’re God’s gift to agriculture.” That’s all well and good. I can appreciate being part of a family legacy. Having something worthy of that caliber of pride makes me more than slightly jealous at times. But in that environment, it can be almost intimidating at times where you feel you don’t have as much to offer. You may even have peers looking down on you or not give you a second look. I’ll confess I was there myself, and sometimes it was downright awful. I know my story certainly isn’t unique among students who hailed from similar scenarios. But why do these new kids up the road matter?
I know we’re all probably sick of being hit with the “the average age of the U.S. farmer is 58 years old” statistic from the 2012 USDA census. Unfortunately, last I checked the 2017 data was not yet published for a more accurate number. But for reference, it’s still pretty impactful especially when you consider that the same census reported 31% of farmers were over 85 years old! It’s safe to say there’s evidence that our farm and ranch families are aging faster than they can be replaced.
Let’s look at another issue that reaches beyond the literal farm. Every one of our industries has faced some pretty steep public outcry in most recent times, needless to say. From the animal rights agenda to the anti-GMO movement to the sustainability debate it seems more and more consumers want to be the white knights against the mythical “Big Ag”. They’d love to tell entire industries how they should do business without ever leaving the comfort of their desktop. Why do I bring up the obvious? I feel these examples illustrate how our industries subtlety cry out for new faces and fresh ideas, some of which don’t come straight off the family farm. From the outside looking in, the complexity and demeanor in which agriculture sometimes presents itself at the same time seem to declare “We’re all good here. We don’t need you but if you’re crazy enough to try to go ahead. No one will laugh too loudly.”
There are several reasons agriculture may seem lackluster among the many career paths being offered to the new generation stepping into the workforce. In fact, check out this fun little article debunking a Washington Post fluff article declaring the idyllic return to the salt of the earth down-home roots among millennials. Now, let me state this upfront, it’s very difficult to get an exact pulse on incoming ag students. Furthermore, there are many professional careers in agribusinesses that aren’t accounted for as “agriculture” by the bureau of labor statistics. (Think your sales reps, communications specialists, journalists, educators, livestock haulers, company CEOs, researchers etc.) So, a lot of what I’ve compiled is personal observance and issues that I believe are pretty significant.
- Barriers to entry: The first thing that comes to mind is the most obvious – it’s simply not feasible for someone to go from a penthouse to an acreage that will pay the bills, plus afford the equipment to break ground. Oh yeah, and suddenly acquire a lifetime of hard skills completely on their own. That’s a pretty literal application though, let’s think about the barriers to even changing up careers and wanting to be an ag professional with no family background. Agricultural jobs are essentially a science, to work in those fields you need either experience, a very specific education, or in most cases both.
- You wouldn’t know you love it unless you lived it: There’s so much about the “country life” we all love. And I don’t just mean that in the idyllic sense, I mean those of us who have chosen an agricultural career path truly love something about the way we grew up, the work that we did, the people who taught it to us. The reason my 4-H experience was such a privilege was that it introduced me to a world that I’d never have otherwise known I loved. And even if an individual has the obscure interest, without the right resources there are little ways to learn. Unless you grew up fitting and strapping livestock, working horses, or operating heavy equipment you’d have no idea where to begin as an adult without some mentor to guide you. Don’t get me wrong, those mentors are out there, but unless you were born into the environment it’ll be difficult to find the resources flying solo.
- There’s more beneath the surface: One joke known to anyone who’s majored in animal science is that they’re all told they have to choose to be either a farmer or a vet. This stigma isn’t unique to one major. I tell people all the time there’s not a single job we can’t do with an ag focus. You like computer programming? You can work in electronic herd records and precision agriculture. Like engineering? We’ve got plenty of that going on. Want to be a teacher? Absolutely.
- It’s a risky business: It’s a funny thing that a business that runs on as basic a necessity as feeding people can at times be so difficult to make a decent living off of.
The good news is there are success stories. Check out this article by AGDAILY that details a gem of a story about a first-generation farmer. It’s the little people out there like this who show you that it is possible, even in this day and age, to be that first-generation. This only works if you’re smart about it, have what it takes to plow through the less glamorous, and have the mind and humility to learn. I know more of these people are out there, they just need a few more guiding stars to help them out.
I hope to start a livestock operation of my own one day. Not a hobby, a real part-time business in addition to the day job. I know that’ll be quite the task, but I’m armed with the comfort that there are other young professionals out there who, like me, are taking their own initiative to create legacies that are unlikely their own. Young Farms and Ranchers is a great part of the Farm Bureau geared towards likeminded individuals. There are also other places such as the National Young Farmer’s Coalition. And the industry itself does want to see you succeed. There’s loans, grants, extension programs of all sorts that are there for the taking by the right people. Might you be one of them someday?