There’s another dilemma lying just beneath the surface of economic uncertainty, hints of it whispering warnings in the creak of knees that aren’t so quick to bend these days, in tired eyes and achy joints, in bad backs and leathery skin.
The average age of the U.S. farmer is steadily on the rise and there aren’t enough young farmers entering the industry to fill the gaping void.
Meanwhile, populations across the globe are increasing, meaning that more and more people are demanding more and more food.
And when U.S. farmers say they “feed the world,” they aren’t exaggerating — bigger harvests in the U.S. tend to improve food affordability on the global front, helping, for instance, Chinese pigs to grow fat on cheap soybean meal grown by American farmers. Their efforts subsequently improve the diets of hundreds of millions of impoverished citizens across the globe. But with fewer individuals choosing farming as an occupation than ever before — new farmer numbers dropped at least 20 percent, according to the most recent USDA agricultural census — and with retirement looming ever closer on the horizon for the average farmer, now aged 60, the nation — and, to some extent, the world — is left to wonder: Where will our food come from? And who will grow it?
Last Friday, the Attica FFA teamed up with Attica Partners for Agriculture to provide some answers, presenting a documentary film and a panel discussion to address the impending crisis. Over baked goods and anecdotal bonding, panelists, community members and students donned their thinking caps and, after delving into 75 minutes worth of footage, facts and figures, got down to the nitty-gritty.
“Where are we headed in agriculture in the future?” asked moderator Barry Flansburg, president of the Albion FFA alumni. “How do we get young people involved?”
For the panel, composed of experts representing local dairies, farms small and large, Farm Credit East and the USDA Farm Service Agency, the answers didn’t come so easily.
Farming is among one of the most hazardous and demanding occupations in existence — working 90 hours a week in a physically demanding environment is to be expected, and agricultural workers are exposed to a slew of occupational hazards each and every day.
Ergonomic stress, sunlight, viruses, inorganic dust, pesticides and other chemicals may play a significant role in the adverse health issues many farmers report, including musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory diseases and injuries.
And with milk, wheat, soybean and bulk maple syrup prices down by a significant margin, farmers aren’t making a lot of money, if any, for their efforts.
The resulting equation is a messy one. How do you make long hours and poor pay appeal to youngsters ready to enter the job market?
Well, the panelists decided, by promoting teamwork, innovation and communication — educating the public is key, they said.
“We have done so well in the past 20 to 30 years producing our products that we haven’t been talking to the consumer,” Flansburg said. “We just assume they get it because we’re involved in agriculture around the clock. We need to get back to talking to the consumer, because when the consumer understands agriculture they’re more apt to get involved and consume.”
Meghan Rodwell, a senior loan officer at Farm Credit East in Batavia, said she couldn’t agree more.
“One of the things I’ve always said is they (the consumers) don’t know what they don’t know,” Rodwell said. “They don’t know that these jobs are out there. They don’t know that agriculture doesn’t always involve being on the farm … Whether you’re selling corn, beans, meat milk or money, we all are in this together and we all have that little fire that burns in our belly. We have to do a better job of embracing the public.”
Because, the panelists said, that’s where they can find the next generation — that’s how they can fill the gap.
“There’s a lot of farms in the area that don’t have a son or a daughter wanting to take them over,” said Joe Siler, Jr., of Sivue Farms. “A lot of the older generation kind of did a poor job of not having a succession plan of any sort to get out of farming and have that farm keep going.”
But via FFA and 4-H programs, if farmers are willing to bend a little and reach out to students who are interested in farming but can’t, or don’t want to, spend eight hours a day milking calves, maybe farmers can begin make lasting connections. Maybe they can rope in those people who cringe at the thought of sitting behind a computer screen 40 hours a week. Maybe they can show the public just how rewarding farming can be, they said.
Because of all the farmers sitting on the panel — including Nate Hartway of Hartway Farms, Ben Colopy of Emerling Farms and Dan McCormick of McCormick Family Dairy — every single one of them loves what they do. They said they hope to inspire others to love it, too — and to challenge the stigma that farmers are “dumb dirt” uneducated folk who don’t know anything except to work hard.
“Not only are we not dumb farmers, but we’re people who love what we’re doing,” Siler said.
He has a 300-head herd of black angus beef soon to begin calving — 160 births are planned by the end of April — 1,200 acres of crops and 30 acres of vegetables grown for farmstands in Java and Elma. He’s been farming all his life, and said he’s surprised at how much people don’t know about farming — and all the joys that come with it.
“When our guys are out working they’ll say, ‘Wow, it’s 5 o’clock already? or ‘Wow, it’s 7 o’clock already?’” Siler said. “These people sit behind a desk all day and literally all they want to do is go home. And then all of a sudden, they’re on the farm and here it is 5 o’clock and they love it. It’s addicting, it really is.”
His comments garnered nods of approval and murmurs of agreement from the audience — but there’s another problem, they said. Even if you love farming, even if you want to spend the rest of your life working hard and getting dirty, it’s hard to break into the market.
“I don’t care how much drive you have, you can’t do anything without opportunity,” Hartway said. And he should know — he struggled to make his own start just a few years ago.
“Access to land, access to capital, trying to have a job, a family and to farm full-time,” have all proved themselves as major hurdles he’s had to overcome, Hartway said. But now that he’s done it, he’s happy and finding success growing pumpkins, corn and soybean on a farm in Orleans County.
So, too, is Emerling, who said that innovation has been invaluable in his success.
“If it wasn’t for the next generation giving me the ideas — small acreage, green houses, dairy farms,” Emerling said. “I wouldn’t be here. We need to help the next generation almost actually think of something, help them out with what their talents are, whether it’s the construction part of it or the dairy part of it. You can get your start with just a few cows — there are so many different ways that if these kids or these adults have the drive, they can succeed.”
And though USDA Farm Service Agency Representative Laura Scondras said it’s “frustrating” that she can only approve loans to farmers who have at least three years’ experience under their belt, there are ways to get around that.
“Just remember that your great-great-grandparents got along because they did things together,” said Dan Hill, a farmer from Collins who got his start during the great farming crisis of the 80s. “They built barns together, they practiced shared ownership. Some people are good with livestock and you might have to capitalize on that, other people are good with mechanics. You may have to share a hay baler — don’t think that you’ve got to just buy everything and do it all yourself. You can share machinery, you can share expertise. Don’t be afraid to start small.”
As long as Americans embrace farm-to-table lifestyles, insist on knowing where their food is coming from and flock to farmers’ markets, there exists great opportunity, the panelists said. And they left the discussion feeling good that they, at the very least, got the ball rolling.
“Grow slowly in steps, learn from your mistakes,” Hill said. “I hope throughout the country, especially in Western New York, we can have more of these meetings.”