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Young Farmers Step Up To Feed The Nation As Ag Business Shrinks

As the agricultural industry around the world gets smaller, young farmers in the United States are rising to the task, even as they face hostile regulations and challenges.

The number of people working in the global agricultural industry has decreased over the past several decades — from 44% in 1991 to 27% in 2019, according to the International Labor Organization.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that between 2012 and 2017, the number of young producers rose by 11%, and the total amount of producers in the United States went up by 7%.

“According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 27% of farmers were categorized as new and beginning producers, with 10 years or less of experience in agriculture,” Sarah Campbell, USDA Farm Service Agency National Beginning Farmer & Rancher Program Coordinator, told the Daily Wire over email. “The 2022 Census of Agriculture is underway and we’re looking forward to those results to help us monitor the number of new farmers, especially in light of the global pandemic and rising farmland prices.”

According to the 2022 National Young Farmer survey, the average age of farmers is around 60 years-old, and almost half of the agricultural land in the United States is about to switch ownership over the next twenty years.

Jeff Mitchell, a professor with the Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told The Daily Wire that things are being done to help people pursue a career in farming.

In California, farmers say they see agricultural interest in the younger generation, but it all depends on several factors, including whether a person has a family history of farming.

Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Company told The Daily Wire that “context is important – farms and regions are so very different it is hard to generalize on [whether the younger generation of farmers is more or less willing to enter into the business of agriculture].”

Dennis Jizmejian is a fifth-generation California family farmer on his father’s side. He says, “[i]]nterest is hard to tell. Obviously we live in a very farm-rich community. I would think there would be a lot more interested if it was easier to get into. It’s just really hard to get in and get started. It really is.”

Jizmejian said the amount of money needed to get started, “especially in California, is pretty crazy,” and there aren’t very many young people who have that kind of money. 

“The data I have seen is that the farming population for the most part is aging more not less — so the younger generation are not flooding into the business. Around me I see examples where younger generations are taking over and entering and then I see plenty of farms where the land is being sold due to lack of family engagement and high prices,” Michael said. 

The survey found that the biggest challenge for young farmers today is discovering land to buy that they can afford, with 59% of young farmers saying that finding an affordable property to purchase is “very or extremely challenging.” More than half of the participants — 54% — said they need additional “access to land” right now. 

The second leading challenge was access to money to expand their business, as many farmers deal with healthcare prices, production costs, housing, and student loan debt. The survey also took into account the challenges of different demographics, but across all races, young farmers in the survey said housing, land, and water were major issues over the last year.

Farmers are naturally eco-friendly, and the profession draws people to it for this reason. In the survey, 83% of young farmers said, “one of their farm’s primary purposes for existing is engaging in conservation or regeneration.”

It’s something that might push more people into the farming business. The Biden administration recently put $2.8 billion towards certain projects as part of its “Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities funding opportunity.”

“There is strong and growing interest in the private sector and among consumers for food that is grown in a climate-friendly way,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Joel Currier, a Colorado rancher, told The Daily Wire that the younger generation “is more willing to enter the business of agriculture. Even if they are not interested in taking over the family farm or ranch, they end up working in another aspect of the agriculture industry.”

As far as challenges go, Currier also said that one of the most considerable hardships young farmers have to face is the massive beginning costs of starting out in the industry.

“For farmers and ranchers like me that are working on taking over a family business we can be faced with estate taxes and inheritance taxes. In some cases, these taxes can be so large the only option we have to come up with enough money to pay the taxes is to sell the farm or ranch,” he added.

Bill Diedrich, a farmer in the Central Valley of California and Jizmejian’s father, told The Daily Wire that “one of the large predeterminers” of someone continuing in farming is a love of the outdoors. He said some people might “dabble” in agriculture if they are interested in the economic side but do not love “dirt and machines.” In this case, “during the downswings, the fire to farm may fade.”

Diedrich added that “water, capital, market conditions, regulations, energy affecting inputs, all are determinates to their success.” He also said it’s a much harder road to get into farming without family money or gifts than in 1980 when he was beginning.

Trent Diedrich works at the Diedrich family farm, as well as Jizmejian. He said that initially, getting into agriculture is a substantial financial feat and is challenging to do, and even friends of his that would like to get into agriculture can’t do so due to the financial aspect.

He said that water is a significant issue making it hard for farmers, as well as the high cost to farm and decreasing prices for commodities. 

Daniel Sumner, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, at UC Davis, said younger family members are eager to take over family farms, but consolidation is also a factor. Young people are entering the agricultural business at a lower rate than in decades past because of this consolidation, he noted.

“[W]ith consolidation there are fewer farm operators in each generation and more hired managers, who may not invest their financial capital but rather invest their human capital. Some families have none of the next generation willing or able to farm… [w]hat usually happens is that a nearby farm neighbors or the cousin down the road consolidates that operation into a unified business,” he said. 

Sumner also said the number of female farmers has continued to rise. He said this is partially a “recognition that women have always been active participants in management of farms,” but there are also more opportunities for women in farming roles. 

The survey found 63.5% of respondents identified as “female, nonbinary, or a gender other than cisgender male.”

“That allows farming to draw on much more talent and suggests another generation of talent. We have seen female leadership in farm organizations, industries and farms for more than a generation, but now it has become routine and that is really excellent for the productivity of agriculture,” Sumner added. 

Different regions face distinct issues. Water is the main issue for California farmers, and Jizmejian said it is “drastically affecting” them. “Water availability is number one priority. [If] there’s ground you can find, you can farm. But some of it doesn’t have water or it’s very limited. It’s year to year,” he added.

He said the economic atmosphere is “not favorable,” as fuel, fertilizer, and labor costs have increased. “The regulatory environment in California is not on our side at all. It’s just death by a thousand cuts right now.”

Sarah Woolf is part of a third-generation farming family and also has a water consulting business specifically for agriculture.

“I would say [agriculture in California is] extremely challenging, specifically around water. We simply do not have enough water in California to support the cities, the environment, and the agricultural production that we’ve historically done,” she said. “And so all of those factions are being constricted and agriculture is probably going to take the biggest hit.”

She believes it’s “very difficult” to buy a farm and begin farming.

“In California agriculture is often demonized and vilified so I see a hesitancy and some younger people to want to get into an industry that is not well understood and not well respected in some circles,” Cannon Michael added.

Trent Diedrich said he jumped at the chance to work at his family’s farm, but he’s “heard stories of people younger than me selling everything they got and getting into other lines of work because the outlook is bleak,” adding it is on a case-by-case basis.

“It looks difficult, the long-term outlook of [agriculture] in the Central Valley is. It’s difficult to project what it’s going to be like in ten years, given the rate of change in the last five,” he said.

Still, the desire to farm is engrained in some people’s blood.

“If you grow up on a family farm you grow up used to a certain way of life,” Currier, the rancher from Colorado, said, noting that many of his family members who are beginning their families and live in the city “hope to return home to the ranch later in life with their kids.”

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