Farming and Ranching

Farming and Ranching by Jennifer Banks: The average farmer is 58. Who will feed us when he dies?

Jennifer Banks is controller and financial analyst, Scythe & Spade Co., EagleJune 4, 2013 

BI columnist Jennifer Banks.JPG

PICASA

Who do you see when you conjure an image of a technology company owner? Is it someone like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who just turned 29 years old?

Who do you see when you think of a farmer? Possibly the American Gothic picture with the gray-haired couple and their pitchfork comes to mind.

There is a reason these impressions exist: They are true. The average age of farmers today is 58, and more than 30 percent are 65 or older. By comparison, the average age of a tech company officer is 40. One is less sexy than the other, but both industries continue to grow, and both need young talent to keep them thriving.

There is a real fear in the agriculture industry that skilled and knowledgeable farm operators are getting too old and the infusion of youth is too slow. Yet we know that food production is not a dying industry. How do we best position our industry to attract and recruit young talent?

Over the past 30 years, farming has used fewer labor hours and increased productivity through the use of technological improvements and operating efficiencies. The business model has shifted to include more focus on business management, pricing discipline, and hedging and insurance strategies.

Some farmers still do business with a smile and a handshake. Some farmers employ the latest technology, such as geographic information system data, to maximize the water efficiency of their farms. We can't lose sight of either end of the spectrum.

There remains the picture of the ideal family farm and its aging patriarch and matriarch. How do we make farming sexy?

Universities are seeing increased interest in agriculture programs. Future Farmers of America reports ever-increasing membership numbers of high school students. What happens to these students? How do we keep them engaged in farming?

The number of career opportunities in agriculture has expanded beyond the farmer who operates acreage behind the family home. Agriculture continues to expand in technology, aquaculture, food science and research. But the agriculture industry owes it to itself to find a better way to attract and retain younger workers.

There are barriers to entry in every industry, and startup costs for farming can be a large barrier. You can't simply educate young people and then expect them to buy into farming now when farmland prices are high. A support system and an on-ramp are needed.

Will it be the son or daughter who takes over the family farm? Maybe, but maybe not. Existing farmers need a strategic exit plan. It may involve simply giving the farm to your children or selling the acreage to your neighbor, but it could be leasing out the land to a new operator and acting as a mentor.

Young people want to see that they're making a difference in the world, and the agriculture industry needs to embrace their point of view. We can see examples of this in the growing market for organic farm products and the emergence of new practices for animal-food handling.

Farming may never be as sexy as Facebook, but we have a lot of room to grow.

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This is Jennifer Banks' first column for Business Insider. She succeeds Chas Bonner, who retired from Scythe & Spade Co. Reach her at JenniferB@ag-management.com; 893-5333.

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