Some hope for future of farming

03/08/2013 09:33:00 AM
Andy Nelson

Andy Nelson, Markets EditorAndy Nelson, Markets EditorYou hear it all the time, at trade shows, in packinghouses, in the fields: “We need to do a better job of attracting new industry talent.”

So urgent is the need, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association created the PMA Education Foundation, which in 2008 changed its name to the Foundation for Industry Talent.

There are all sorts of hurdles to careers in the industry that organizations like PMA FIT are trying to knock down or at least lower.

Take demographics.

Today’s ranks of leaders are dominated by the famously enormous baby boom generation, many of whom are nearing retirement.

The problem is that the generation right behind them isn’t nearly as big.

And Gen Xers and the Gen Yers behind them aren’t exposed to the internships and other outreach efforts that are a staple of other industries.

For many young people, the produce industry, and agriculture in general, isn’t even on their radar.

It’s hard to blame them. As a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study says, “Family farm households allocate a disproportionately large share of their time to farming compared with the share of income they receive from farming.”

Members of my family have farmed land in south-central Nebraska for generations.

But as it stands now, none of my cousins’ kids seem inclined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. (They’ve still got a few high school-aged and younger that could come through for them, however.)

The new USDA study, by the Economic Research Service, sheds a light on the grower end of this dilemma.

“Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance” predictably lays out some of the problems industry members are all too aware of, but it also finds reasons for hope.

First, on the “con” side, the number of young entrepreneurs choosing farming in the U.S. has dropped significantly in recent decades.

In the early ’80s, 38% of principal farm operators had fewer than 10 years of experience farming.

Now, it’s closer to one in four.

Aging population

Farmers also are getting older. In 1982, 16% of operators were under 35. By 2007, the last year for which data was available, just 5% were under 35.

Those starting farming in the 21st century aren’t exactly spring chickens.

The average age of principal operators of beginning farms in 2011 was 49, about a decade younger than the average operator of an established farm.

Beginning farmers also are more likely to rely on non-farm income for their livelihood, according to the USDA study.


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Margi Prueitt    
Newark, DE  |  March, 11, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Thank you for highlighting the work of PMA Foundation for Industry Talent's work to attract, develop and retain talent for the global produce industry. If our businesses are to thrive in the future, it is essential to help more young people see the benefits of a career in fresh produce. Our Career Pathways programs (five in the U.S. and one coming in Canada) do just that, with the help of industry leaders that serve as Career Ambassadors. It is also vital for companies to understand what it takes to keep people - best "people" practices are different for different generations.

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