Returning to the classrooms for the 2015-16 school year, many students are no doubt pondering what their future will look like – the career path they will choose. One popular choice is the law. The American Bar Association reported in 2014 that there were almost 1.3 million licensed lawyers in the United States. The last time this country saw a decrease in the number of lawyers was 100 years ago.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of young folks choosing a career in the law.
Compare that to a career in agriculture as a farmer – a job tasked with feeding America and the world.
The average age of a farmer in the United States has increased from 50.5 years to 58.3 years old over the last 30 years, according to figures released from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The continued aging of our nation’s food providers is further reflected in the fact that our nation has seen an increase of over 30 percent of farmers over the age of 75 and a decrease of 20 percent of farmers under the age of 25.
The last census shows that there are nearly 6 times more farmers at the end of their career – those 65 and older – than at the beginning of their career – those 34 and younger. Put another way – there are over 700,000 farmers nearing the end of their farming years, and not quite 120,000 at the beginning.
For a young person looking to break into the agriculture business there are major barriers and burdens to entry. Without ready and accessible credit or loans, the $360,000 needed for a new combine is out of reach for most young people looking to get their start in farming. And for the son or daughter who inherits a farm from their parents, they run the risk of having to sell off their land to pay their inheritance tax bill. Don’t forget those handy dictates handed down by agencies like the EPA that demand expensive and stifling compliance for seemingly even the smallest changes to farming operations.
At times it seems that the government turns a blind eye to the plight of the new farmer.
It makes no sense that the population of arguably some of the most important men and women in world – those who provide a safe, affordable, reliable food supply – is dwindling while the population of legal professionals, some of whom will be responsible for the blossoming barriers to entry, grows year after year.
This is a crisis in America that, if not managed strategically, will lead to nutritional, economic and national security consequences felt not only in the U.S., but the world over.
After breaking down the barriers and burdens to farming, a big step towards solving this crisis is to keep, grow, and expand agriculture education programs in our schools. Future Farmers of America (FFA) does an outstanding job of encouraging and expanding the pool of young people who choose to pursue careers in agriculture.
The untold story about farming is that it is one of the most skilled, technologically demanding jobs in the nation. Our schools – both rural and urban – should be teaching a S.T.E.A.M. based curriculum – Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, & Math.
After high school, and after the FFA experience, there are great agriculture programs at schools like U.C.– Davis, Oklahoma State, University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M, and Kansas State – just to name a few – where students can be further challenged and encouraged to do more in agriculture and expand and apply their S.T.E.A.M. education.
Farming and agriculture can provide the context for a better understanding of higher math, complex science, and technological applications that may otherwise pass by our brightest and most gifted students. Cultivating a new source of young talent, and introducing them to agriculture and its importance to both individual and national success would echo the words of President George Washington who said in 1796: “It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance.”
Modern farming work is light years past the time of plows and sows of the 18th century. 21st century farmers utilize data, risk management tools, advanced math and problem solving, and science and technology to run their operations – both large and small – all while being good stewards of the land.
This is an exciting time to be involved in modern agriculture. Techniques being developed and refined today are the solutions needed to feed a growing national, and global population.
While I don’t get to spend as much time on my farm as I would like, the facts are still easy to understand: Unless we are able to lower the barriers and burdens of entry to farming, and attract and keep new men and women to the farming fields, the future of agriculture, and the source of safe, affordable, and abundant food, is at risk.
About Joe M. Allbaugh: Joe M. Allbaugh is a farmer and Advisory Board Member of Ag America. He is a former Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ag America is a coalition of agricultural leaders dedicated to electing candidates for public office with a proven record of supporting American agriculture through the application of common sense free market principles.