Young dreams, huge obstacles
While the farming community continues to age fewer young people are filling the ranks, prompting the question: Do young people even want to farm anymore?
The quick answer is yes, just not in the same numbers as they used to. And surveys indicate many of them don’t want to farm in conventional ways.
A 2011 survey from the National Young Farmers Coalition (PDF) showed access to land and capital to be the single biggest factors keeping young people from getting into farming or ranching. The results also indicated young people are concerned about the environment and interested in small-scale operations.
But it can be difficult to turn dreams of a farm life into reality.
In Longmont, Colo., Eva Teague, 31, has learned how difficult it can be to start a financially sound pig farm. Teague is a grad school dropout turned farmer, originally from the East Coast. Jaded with academia, she moved to Colorado and began working as a farm apprentice. She bought her first pigs a couple years ago.
“(I) didn’t have that much cash, so I paid for feed with the credit card just to get going,” Teague said.
Right now, her biggest challenge, like many other young farmers is access to capital. She recently secured a low-interest loan from the federal Farm Service Agency, but it’s not enough to get her business off the ground completely. Teague still spends her days on the farm and every evening working full-time as a waitress. Next year she plans to take a big leap; she wants to quit her off-farm job and rely solely on her on-farm income to sustain herself.
Teague lucked out and scored a lease for her 15 acres at the base of the Rocky Mountains after searching for plots of land on Craigslist. She taught herself Quickbooks accounting software through Google searches. She relies heavily on the skills she picked up during a handful of apprenticeships throughout Colorado. In short, Teague is part of the millenial generation of farmers, a group that often eschews traditional forms of agriculture and favors small-scale operations.
“It’s a very rare person who’s not grown up on a farm that’s going to go out and say, ‘I want to plant 100,000 acres of corn. I want to invest $300,000 in a tractor. I want to get a confinement hog barn with 300,000 pigs,” Teague said.
Of course, the millennial generation isn’t exclusively made up of farmers who’ve jumped on the local food movement. There are still young people out there who want to get involved with more conventional forms of agriculture, but many of them still find their options limited.
“There’s no way I’ll ever be able to own my own ranch,” said Bo Bigler, 25, a graduate student at Colorado State University. He’ll graduate at the end of the summer with a master’s degree in beef management, which almost ensures a career working at large feedlots.
“The price to buy into it, it’s too much -- the cost of land is unreal,” Bigler said. “The only way that somebody can get into it is if a ranch was handed down to them, unless they’re millionaires to begin with.”
The ability to purchase land is another major hurdle keeping many young people from entering the agriculture industry as producers. Leased land is available, but it leaves farmers at the whim of a landlord who could choose to cancel or refuse to renew a lease agreement.
Ranchland prices in the West have reached staggering highs. Ranch and farmland, not just in Colorado, but across the plains, is going for several thousand dollars per acre, keeping aspiring farmers from contemplating to buy.
“There’s no way they can pay the student loan, and pay a land payment and still have enough money left over to live on,” said Kraig Peel, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.
Many of Peel’s students come into his classes with idealistic ideas about farming and ranching. These days about 80 percent of his students have grown up in an urban setting, with the rest leaving a rural life to attend school. They quickly learn to realign their expectations, he said.
“It’s very frustrating for a lot of these students, that would like to [run a farm or ranch], but economically it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s not feasible and the banks won’t loan them money in the first place,” Peel said.
The ranching industry has reached a tipping point, Peel said. The need to bring in young people is a concern for both large and small operations. Sixty-four percent of the nation’s cattle ranches are owned by someone older than 55. Given the economic situation, many of Peel’s students have chosen to forgo the financial difficulties of running a ranch and work for large agribusiness companies instead.
“The system is not working right now to allow them entrance into the job market,” Peel said.
Back at Eva Teague’s pig farm in Longmont, she’s working on a multi-year business plan to make sure she can add on a few acres of vegetables and some more pigs.
“I think a lot of young people want to work outside in sort of a ‘farm camp’ fun experience,” Teague said. “There are fewer people who would like to work really hard, like 50-60 hours a week for not a lot of money, which is what working on a farm is.”
Teague filled out a form for the latest agricultural census last year. When data is released in 2014, we’ll see whether enough young people have joined the ranks to keep the average age of farmers from climbing even higher.
Note: This is the fifth of five stories in a series by Harvest Public Media, Changing Lands, Changing Hands, examining the implications of an unrelenting trend: the American farmer is getting older.