There’s no question — agriculture isn’t a particularly easy way of life. Ag comes with lots of hard work and no guarantee it will pay off.
It’s because of this that farmers for generations have encouraged their sons and daughters to seek careers off the farm.
As my husband points out, it’s one thing to farm when corn is $8 a bushel, and a totally different game when it’s under $2.
Discouraging farming as a career seems to have been effective. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Ag Statistics Service has gathered statistics that appear to support this, and they are quoted and re-quoted: Farmers are aging, with more than 50 percent of farms operated by individuals 55 and older and less than 10 percent by people 34 and younger.
And, even considering recent niche-market growth in organic and local foods, and new interest in super-diverse urban and suburban microfarms, average farm size is increasing and the overall number of farms is decreasing.
Yet amid all the worrisome stats, here’s a bright spot: The discouragement may be turning to encouragement. I’ve got five kids now, so this swing is heartening to me as a parent.
Ag career fields are becoming vastly diversified beyond production agriculture, and new ag education programs in schools throughout Hub Territory support kids in all kinds of possible ag-related fields.
Two examples come from my own back yard.
At their December 2015 production sale, Scott and Kim Ford of Cross Diamond Cattle Co. of Bertrand implemented their spin on another Red Angus breeder’s Ag Youth Initiative, with plans to make it an annual part of their own sale.
Kids at the sale are entered into a drawing for a bred heifer.
“We want youth to have a reason to be excited about agriculture and the Red Angus breed,” Kim told me by email last week. “We chose a commercial bred heifer since she will give a return quickly by having a calf. And there’s really nothing more exciting than seeing your own heifer with a calf at side.”
The 2015 winner was 10-year-old Justin Miller of Broken Bow. “This year’s heifer recently calved and we have kept up with that through Facebook,” Kim wrote. “There are no strings attached with this heifer drawing, but we would love to keep in touch with winners.”
AgWest Commodities owner Steve Knuth credits Carrie Trompke of the home office in Holdrege with the idea of supporting 4-H and FFA members through AgWest’s seven offices in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado.
The program started in 2012 when AgWest’s customer territory outgrew its ability to keep up with all the related 4-H auctions.
“We still support multiple counties’ programs as sponsors, but we wanted to be able to reward multiple participants, and since there are so many different ways to participate in 4-H, we also wanted to support the kids who participated in non-livestock projects,” Carrie wrote.
AgWest now offers a $50 premium to each of their customers’ children and grandchildren who complete a questionnaire about their 4-H projects.
“Some also send pictures of their projects, which we display at our offices,” said Carrie. “They put a lot of time and hard work into these projects, and we enjoy reading about what all they learn and how proud they are of their accomplishments.”
AgWest added FFA to the program for 2015-2016. “FFA offers so many opportunities to students and teaches many leadership skills that will help them be successful in the future,” she said. “It also teaches them about the many career opportunities available to them in the field of agriculture.”
Why am I as a parent so encouraged by these types of opportunities for kids? The key word is opportunity.
It looks like farming will be a contentious topic for years, and these opportunities reassure ag-oriented kids that even though some people are against them, many people are for them.
Perhaps more importantly, people and organizations they know have their backs as they grow and learn.
“We see the absolute value in supporting, growing and educating our youth,” Kim said. “This will build advocates for agriculture and loyalty to this way of life.”
“4-H and FFA teach kids so much about hard work, responsibility, interacting with people of all ages and making new friends, and we are proud to support the programs,” Carrie said.
This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the March 12, 2016, issue of the Kearney Hub.