Agriculture producers aren’t getting any younger, and those looking for a start in the industry are facing an ever-rising wall of challenges. In an effort to improve the odds, for those looking to get a start in farming and ranching, a variety of local, state and national programs, workshops and degrees are actively engaging young people, providing them with firsthand experiences, and supplying opportunities to help them get their foot in the door. The programs range in scope, target audience and duration, but all are working to maintain today’s agriculture industry.

Matching programs

Two Nebraska-based programs match potential young farmers and ranchers in western states with established producers. The aim is to build equity and opportunity for the young person, while maintaining a viable agriculture entity for the established producer.

The Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs (NCRA) relies on established landowners to contact them, and provide information on how they are interested in partnering with a beginner. That information is documented, and when a beginner contacts them looking for a parallel opportunity, they are sent a list of potential established landowners. From that point, it is the beginner’s responsibility to contact the landowner, introduce themselves, and determine if they are a potential match.

“If they agree they may be a match, we encourage them to contact us again, and we can provide direction for planning and ways to draw up legal paperwork to ensure the beginners have some assurances prior to becoming involved with the landowner,” says Virginia Wolking, NCRA policy organizer. “We also want to ensure that the relationship expectations of each side is clear at the beginning of the process.”

She adds that some landowners are very involved in the process and prefer it to be more of a mentoring experience. Others might have a pasture or 50-acre field they aren’t sure what to do with, so they hand it over to the beginner and tell them to do what they want.

“Every situation is totally different. Some of our landowners aren’t farmers or ranchers, and own the property for hunting or different conservation or recreation programs. Others are working operations whose owners are interested in helping young people get started. Regardless, all of our matches result in hands-on experience in the farming or ranching industry,” Wolking notes.

Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska’s College of Technical Agriculture (CTA) offers multiple degrees that focus on teaching students the necessary skills for succeeding in farming and ranching. Among the most progressive components of the curriculum are its “100 beef cow” and “100-acre” programs, which match students with farmers and ranchers willing to let them buy into their operation.

“When you own something, you take care of it differently than if it was loaned or rented to you. That’s the idea with our ownership programs. We tell farmers and ranchers that if they want an outstanding employee, make them a partner,” explains CTA Dean Weldon Sleight.

He adds that CTA’s coursework helps students secure the low-interest Farm Service Administration (FSA) loans (1.25% for up to $300,000) necessary to buy the cattle or operating funds for a farm. CTA also assists in developing a business plan and partnership agreement, and establishing the partnership.

Sleight notes that as agricultural producers tend to not retire, taking on a young partner allows them to maintain the operation (while helping the young person build equity). They can also reduce their personal workload, and might even result in the ideal candidate to whom they can pass on the operation. Additionally, young families returning to rural communities keep those communities alive and thriving, another important focus at CTA.

“Our programs strive to help our students start building collateral as soon as they graduate via a partnership with a current producer. While 100 cows or 100 acres may seem like a lot, it won’t support a family unless the beginning farmer or rancher is a partner/employee for a current farmer or rancher, or the beginning farmer/rancher or a spouse has an off-farm position. If you have a dream of owning a farm or ranch, this program is a wonderful first step,” Sleight says.

To learn more about the NCRA’s Land Link Program, please call 402-687-2103. For information on CTA’s 100-cow or 100-acre program, call 308-367-5200.

State-based programs

Numerous state ag-affiliated organizations are offering more localized educational opportunities designed to show beginners what it takes to do their dream job. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association (NDSA) Mentoring Program, for instance, allows high school and college-age students the chance to be mentored by an individual within their desired career field.

“We started in 1998 with the idea of exposing young people to their desired career within the beef industry. Just getting their feet wet and having that first-hand experience often helps a student realize if a career is, or isn’t, for them,” says Julie Ellingson, NDSA executive vice president. She worked with nine mentoring/protégé teams in 2012.

Interested students are required to submit an application, and acceptance is determined based on past experience, academic excellence and the availability of a qualified mentor within the applicant’s desired career choice and geographic proximity. Ellingson says students have been matched in numerous fields. Over the years, veterinary medicine has been the most popular career field requested by applicants.

“We do an initial kickoff workshop, where we provide training on what it means to be a mentor and a protégé. This includes information about communicating effectively across generations and identifying goals and objectives,” she says. “The mentorship lasts seven to eight months, and each team is required to meet at least four times during that time. At the end of the program, a wrap-up session is held for participants to evaluate the experience and go through a graduation ceremony.”

For some teams, the mentoring relationship has continued long after the program ended, Ellingson adds. Some even ended up working together professionally following the mentoring program.

The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association can be reached at 701-223-2522.

Online resources

Start2farm, a service of USDA’s National Agricultural Library, is an online database (start2farm.gov) that specializes in providing information on educational programs available for beginning farmers.

“We’re an information service; our job is to find all the training programs that exist and get them listed in our database,” says Jorie Porter of Start2farm. “There are several programs that range from classes, to daylong workshops, to apprenticeships. Even community-based and non-profit groups offer programs to help people get involved in agriculture, and they’re all listed on our website. Anyone can search our site by zip code, state, or area of interest, and get results on what’s available to help educate them.”

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) is a non-profit group that supports young and beginning farmers and ranchers across the county. The group’s focus includes working on national policy in addition to providing online resources that include:

• The website farmhack.net is intended to be a technical information-sharing site. For producers encountering a technical problem with machinery, or for those working on an invention, farmhack.net is a resource for sharing designs, posting innovations and learning how to fix farm and ranch-related technical problems, says Wes Hannah, NYFC organizer.

• Another area of emphasis is developing a network of young and beginning farmers and ranchers across the U.S. via the website, youngfarmers.org. Here people can access a database of programs in their area that focus on ag education, as well as meet other producers.

“We are contacted regularly by young people who farm or ranch and were unaware there were other young people in the same situation in their area,” Hannah says of the success of the NYFC website’s network-building component. 

Heather Hamilton is a rancher and freelance writer based in Lance Creek, WY.