Get Dave Baker talking about getting new blood into agriculture, and he's a fountain of optimism. It's necessary for his job as a farm-transition specialist with Iowa State University and the Beginning Farmer Center (BFC). But ask him about the dwindling numbers entering agriculture, and he grows stern.

“I think the mid '80s did more to chase away young people than anything,” Baker says. “And the older generation was part of that. They were going through some rough times, and they didn't encourage young people to come back to the farm — they discouraged them.”

Those who did return often encountered resistance to new ideas. Matt Perrier, a young Eureka, KS, rancher, sees this as a major challenge for some young cattlemen. “I don't understand why many folks encourage our youth to go to college and get an education, then scoff at their naivety when they come home eager to try new production practices,” Perrier says. “Fortunately, my family has always been open to new concepts and ideas, but I have witnessed these challenges in other farms and ranches.

“In other industries, this youthful enthusiasm is nurtured and even rewarded, but that's not always the case in production agriculture,” Perrier says.

Most are probably just trying to protect the new generation, remembering the economic hit in the '80s, Baker says. It's a time many young people can scarcely remember; some weren't even born yet.

Two stakeholder groups addressing this transition are USDA's Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

USDA to the rescue

Growing concern about the average age of farmers in the late '80s, and the Agricultural Credit Improvement Act of 1992, paved the way for USDA's Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers. Overseeing the organization since its inception is Mark Falcone.

“We don't see the number of young people staying on the farm that we used to,” Falcone says. One often-cited barrier is land prices, which have skyrocketed with the ethanol boom.

But a bigger issue is closer to home — the lack of farm-succession planning, he says. He cites BFC data indicating that when producers are asked “When are you going to retire?” the majority of respondents say “Never.”

This isn't just an issue in the U.S., either, but also in Europe and Canada. Last year, the National Farm Transition Network became an international organization.

Is the future of agriculture at risk without new blood? Falcone doesn't know but he's concerned that rural communities will die off as family farms dwindle and become part of larger enterprises.

Falcone's advice for beginning farmers and ranchers: “Don't get into too much debt too soon. Purchase some equipment and livestock first, build up some equity and pay off some of the operating debt before jumping in and being saddled with operating and real estate debt all at once.”

For those on the other side of the fence, he can't stress enough the importance of having a transition plan in place. “Talk with your family, even though it's an extremely difficult issue,” Falcone says. “People might be anxious about broaching the topic now, but it's going to cause incredible heartache for family members later if there's no transition plan.”

NCBA's youth movement

Today, the average age of an NCBA member is 60 years, which makes president Andy Groseta, 57, feel like a kid when he attends industry meetings.

“Involving young people in agriculture and getting them involved in NCBA is very close to my heart,” Groseta says proudly, after raising three children who are actively involved in agriculture.

Among the first steps NCBA took to groom industry leaders was to start the Young Cattlemen's Conference (YCC) in 1980. Today, it boasts nearly 1,000 graduates and is a model for similar programs in other industries.

Another program, conducted by the American National CattleWomen, is the National Beef Ambassador Program. Both programs are designed to develop leaders in agriculture.

But Groseta says more needs to be done to get young people involved in our industry. On his agenda is a forum for youth activities at the 2009 NCBA annual convention and trade show to be held in Phoenix, AZ. Ideas include livestock judging, public speaking, a quiz bowl and a team-marketing contest for junior and senior high students, possibly even adults.

Another Groseta initiative is the Young Producers Council (YPC), which received board approval at the NCBA summer conference in July. YPC is targeted at 18- to 35-year-olds interested in NCBA and the cattle industry.

The response has been gratifying, Groseta says. NCBA staffers conducted an online exploratory survey of young producers last spring, and responses indicated 81% were very likely or somewhat likely to join YPC. All were very interested in having a voice in NCBA.

“These young people want to be actively engaged and involved in the policy process,” Groseta says.

Each YPC member will be eligible to sit on any policy committee or subcommittee within NCBA. In addition, YPC can bring policy resolutions and other ideas through the appropriate committee or subcommittees.

In addition to developing future leaders for NCBA, YPC is designed to provide networking opportunities. In early July, NCBA launched a social group on Facebook (a popular social networking website, www.facebook.com) and had 510 participants within the first month, and the group continues to grow.

Groseta has high hopes for YPC and is confident NCBA can provide education and career information, forum topics, agribusiness tours and industry spokesperson training, in addition to social events and job postings.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” Groseta says of NCBA's youth movement. “We need to make time, we need to give them the opportunity and we need to support their involvement in our organization.”

2008 farm bill and our future

Mark Falcone, designated federal official for the Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, summarizes key points of the 2008 farm bill for beginning farmers and ranchers.

  • Beginning farmer and rancher development program: A $75-million competitive grants program that supports community-based beginning farmer and rancher training, education and mentoring efforts.

  • Beginning farmer and rancher individual development account pilot program: Established a new 15-state pilot program to assist beginning farmers who lack significant financial resources or assets to accumulate start-up savings and financial management skills; still requires appropriations.

  • Conservation set-aside, payment rate, and advanced payment: Reserves 5% of total funds from working lands conservation programs for beginners and 5% for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Also provides a 90% cost-share rate for beginning, limited resource and socially disadvantaged producers (with a directive that it must be at least 25% higher cost-share than regular contract offers).

    The Environmental Quality Incentives Program includes a provision that allows a beginner, limited resource or socially disadvantaged producer to receive 30% of the payment up front (advanced payment) to help him or her meet the costs of putting in the practice.

  • Beginning farmer and rancher down payment loans program: Changes to program include: lower interest rates, better lending terms, increased maximum loan limit of $225,000, and no limit on purchase price on first-time land purchases for new farmers, plus program expansion to also cover minority and women farmers.

  • Higher loan limits and credit program funding levels: An increase in per-farm loan limits from $200,000 to $300,000 for both direct ownership and direct operating loans, and an increase in the authorization for appropriations for annual lending funds to $350 million and $850 million for direct ownership and operating loans, respectively.

  • Beginning farmer and rancher contract land sales program: A new permanent, nationwide authority for federal guarantees on private land contract sales to assist transfer of farms from retiring to beginning farmers and ranchers.

  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) transition incentives: Secured $25 million over 10 years in mandatory funding for a new program encouraging owners of CRP land returning to production to rent or sell to beginning and minority farmers.

  • Conservation loans: Revised conservation loan program includes priorities for beginning and minority farmers, and for conversion to sustainable and organic farming.

  • Office of Advocacy and Outreach: Creates a new office at the top level of USDA to coordinate implementation of small farm and beginning farmer and rancher policies and programs, as well as socially disadvantaged farmer and farm worker policies and programs.

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