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By Kirk Arnold, NODPA Co-president
As I don the mantle of co-president of NODPA and assume the first of my few duties, I think of what seems to be a recurring topic at the member meetings over the last few years: How do we get more young farmers involved in NODPA? My first thought, as a young farmer myself, is not that NODPA has a hard time attracting other young farmers, but that there are so few out there to attract in the first place (6% of US farmers are 35 and under). The few that are out there rarely have the time to get away for a field days or to participate on a board.
There seems to be a fair number of beginning farmer programs available that attempt to address some of the hurdles of entry into agriculture. FSA loans help with the capital cost associated with starting a farm, and USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher programs provide funding for education and training to bridge the knowledge gap. To me, all these programs are nice, but they don’t really help with the core of the issue: a sustainable market.
The USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program website states, “The reasons for the renewed interest in beginning farmer and rancher programs are as follows: the rising average age of U.S. farmers; the 8% projected decrease in the number of farmers and ranchers between 2008 and 2018.” So here we have a stated issue. Meanwhile, we have Secretary of Ag Sonny Perdue telling us that, "It's very difficult on economies of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, 60 or even 100 cows, and that's what we've seen.” For Perdue, the old logic of “get big or get out” remains intact, despite mounting research demonstrating the economic and cultural significance of small farms.
But beginning farmers have to start small, and last I knew, FSA was not giving out loans for beginning farmers to start 1000+ cow “economy of scale” dairy farms. If there is no place in the market to get started farming, is it really any surprise that there are not many young farmers around? It seems that most young would-be farmers are just doing what common sense dictates and going to a field more fertile than that of agriculture. More and more young people carry student debt, which creates an additional barrier to accessing start-up capital and credit.
All in all, I don’t know what NODPA can do to get more young farmers involved other than what it has already been working towards for the past 18 years - that is, trying to create a level playing field and a stable, sustainable market. To quote a famous movie, “If you build it, they will come.” It seems that if there is a good place in the industry to get started and thrive in, then those young people who are passionate about farming sustainably would be more than willing to make a go at a career in agriculture.