Blake R. Thaxton, Santa Rosa County Extension
As our country continues to search for economic stability there are numerous questions that face agriculture in the United States as well as in the Florida panhandle. There are the standard questions about fuel cost, labor, and new federal and state regulations. Another question and growing concern looming in the background is the aging population of farmers and other “aggies.” The effects of this issue could grow out of control if not properly addressed in the near future.
Our farming population is aging at a rapid rate. The average age of a US farmer in the 2007 AG Census was 57.1 and has increased by 1 year every census cycle (every five years) since 1978. In Florida that number reaches 58.4. If this 30 year trend continues, then the average age of a farmer in Florida reported by the 2012 Ag Census will be nearly 60 when released.
Why are young farmers not recruiting into the profession? Are our agriculture universities and colleges not keeping up with the needs of the industry? With industry becoming more efficient every year, that is most likely not the case. The reality is that the agriculture industry is very difficult to get started in. The startup cost for most agriculture operations are fairly large and very daunting for the young farmer with families and a mountain of student loans. And, again the efficiency of agriculture has allowed many small and medium size operations to hire simply labor and not middle management positions that these future farmers would normally hold.
If this is the case what is the answer? That is a very difficult question that has many answers. Only time will tell if the US can answer them correctly. The highest rates of unemployment in the country are amongst young people in their 20’s. According to the Bureau of Labor the unemployment rate for 20 to 24 year olds is 14.6% and for 25 to 29 year olds it is 10.3%. There seems to be a lot of interest in agriculture and production from young people, but where is the action? How can we turn that interest into results?
One train of thought is to encourage young farmers to engage in the concept of small farms, even as a side career. Getting started in agriculture production is a difficult process and may be easier to begin with the small farm model. For example, an agriculture graduate has an agronomy degree but because of the economy has started working as a bank teller. He or she has the opportunity to start a small vegetable operation on the side. Will it be easy? Is agriculture ever easy? No. It will take hard work, but maybe that young agronomist could grow his or her business into a profitable small farm that can provide for their family. Also the agriculture community should encourage that young farmer, by perhaps helping out with business connections, or loaning old equipment.
These types of questions should continue to be asked over and over to encourage creative answers and activities until some results are seen. It is our entire population that is at stake. No Farmers = No Food!
*If you are a young farmer or potential young farmer, check out this UF/IFAS website on Small and Alternative Farms. Also, be on the look out for opportunities provided by the UF/IFAS NW Extension District for beginning farmers. Programs were recently offered across the panhandle for beginning Beekeeping and Cattle Management 101. We hope to provide many more in the future!