Young farmers will have an advantage
By Ernie Flint
Mississippi State University Extension Agronomist
There are few absolutes, but there is at least one we must accept. This is that all of us will pass on to leave our jobs to a younger generation. Most of us who enjoy what we do are at least a little reluctant to accept this inevitability, but like it or not it happens. We must accept that younger people with bright minds, intense ambitions, and families to raise are anxious to take our places, and the best we can do in many cases is to help them be successful.
During the careers of most of those in my generation the percentage of the U.S. population involved in production agriculture has dropped rapidly. In 1950, about 16 percent of the U.S. population was directly involved in farming, but today that figure has dropped to around 1.8 percent. The most recently published data shows that between 1945 and 2012 the average age of farmers increased from 39 to 57. Over 40 percent of active farmers today are over 55.
One of the most consistent and successful cotton farmers I have known kept going past the age of 90. He was unable to drive his pickup (safely), had very poor eyesight and hearing, but the last year he planted cotton he made some of the highest yields in the area where he farmed. That’s very rare, I know, but it shows that age may not diminish ability. It’s like riding a bicycle or swimming; you don’t forget how even though physical capabilities may become limited.
An absolute fact framed by these statistics is that a new generation of farmers will soon hold the reins of food and fiber production. They may farm vast amounts of land with more efficient methods, technology, and equipment. They may be more business and less hands-on than their predecessors. Society will demand the necessities of life that can only come from agriculture in some form. New methods may be devised that we can only imagine today.
Young farmers are in a prime position to capitalize on the foundations of American agriculture that have been laid since the landing of the Mayflower, but mainly since the adoption of mechanized agriculture during and following World War II. Some entity, whether government, banks, corporate agriculture, or private investors must support their going forward. Their productivity must increase dramatically since world population is projected to double by 2050 unless some great calamity reverses that trend.
A few “purists” suggest that agriculture can return to its “roots” and to a time when families lived off the land, producing most of their own food and trading for those few things that lifestyle may not provide. A return to this “agrarian” society may for some be the ultimate goal, but it does not take into account the fact that the development of civilization has rested upon a division of work in which some people farm and others become professionals in many fields, craftsmen, and artists. It’s a proven system and we should learn from the past and avoid “reinventing the wheel”.
A young person today has an advantage in agriculture, and especially here in the South where we often tend to overlook the great natural resources we have in land, water, and sufficiently favorable weather. The simple fact is that unless our young people take advantage of the opportunities others will. We need to encourage those who aspire to be the farmers of the future, stay out of their way, and when possible remove a few stone from their paths.