Building the Next Generation of Farmers
Posted: June 13, 2012
Young farmers stepping into the agricultural world have various opportunities to engage in such as 4H, Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the Young Grower Alliance (YGA) to name a few. 4-H is a community program of 8-18 year olds with a variety of progra
Farming in America has evolved from early subsistence farming to larger scale specialized farms. Farms are yielding more food per acre than ever before, as well as, following more government regulations. With farming being mainly low-income and labor intensive it’s no wonder the numbers historically have been low for new or beginning farmers.
According to the USDA Ag Census beginning farms are highest in the South and West and lowest in the Midwest. In the US, farms with operators beginning within the past 5 years account for only 13 percent of all farms.
Young farmers stepping into the agricultural world have various opportunities to engage in such as 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the Penn State Young Grower Alliance (YGA) to name a few. 4-H is a community program of 8-18 year olds with a variety of programs to choose from. Ben Weikert the 4-H Youth Development Extension Educator at Penn State Extension and got his agricultural start as a young 4-H’er.
Ben received his undergrad at West Virginia University for Animal Sciences and is currently working on his graduate degree from Penn State for Agriculture & Extension Education. He says that “4-H gave me the informal education; it inspired me to learn more about agriculture.” He describes 4-H as an inquiry based education offering programs not just in agriculture but new program areas such as science and engineering.
In his future he’d like “to share the experience I had with 4-H. I believe in it and want to give kids the same opportunity I had. 4-H has existed in PA 100 years and hopefully quite a long duration further.”
Ben emphasizes that to be successful in agriculture one should have the education and communication. “The good thing to do is get yourself educated. Most farmers have some education or background which helps them do their job better. Farming is a community job, go talk to a farmer and see what they’re doing to put food on our tables.” His degrees opened up experiences he may not have had without his education and showed him the broad spectrum of the agricultural world.
Penn State alone offers 19 Baccalaureate degrees in agricultural sciences from Agribusiness management, biological engineering, and food science to horticulture, landscape contracting and veterinary and biomedical sciences. Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, noted that “our students walk out the door with more than 90 percent of them having jobs in their fields.”
Yet many people employed within agriculture often do not step on a farm for their daily work. Agriculture provides employment in various sub-industries such as research, machinery and construction, finance and conservation or environmental practices.
Two young growers still unsure of their path within the agricultural world are active members in the Gettysburg FFA Chapter. Kendall Wilkinson and Gretchen Dubs are both High School Juniors who joined FFA in Middle School. Gretchen remarks that she joined FFA to be allowed to take the Farm Show trip but she quickly realized “this isn’t just about the Farm Show. FFA has definitely put us in a direction to go towards agriculture.” She looks at Kendall while she remarks that other students say they will become dentists or doctors but “we’re going to be farmers.”
They have benefited highly from FFA competitions, public speaking and agronomy programs. The leadership, team work and time management skills are invaluable lessons which have assisted them through events at the Elementary and Middle Schools teaching younger kids about what agriculture really is. “We try to set a good example for younger people,” says Gretchen.
Both Kendall and Gretchen are weighing their options for further education at either Penn State or Delaware Valley College. As the two embark on their agricultural careers, they are bound to see farming change in their lifetimes, but Gretchen positively remarks that “agriculture is never going away, it’ll always be there.”
Along with education and communication, priority is given to new and beginning farmers in government programs regarding access to credit, lower interest rates and encouraged research. The encouragement of not only new but existing farmers is an important aspect to agriculture. As the dynamics of trade, employment and living standards continue to change, producers need to know their livelihood is protected by consumer interest.
The Penn State Young Grower Alliance is a coalition of over 200 members created to help young producers learn, lead and connect. With tours and seminars there is an innumerable amount of knowledge passed between growers, many of whom have returned to upkeep and improve the family farm.
Whether young or inexperienced these are not traits which have ever prohibited a motivated person from becoming a producer. It is in the history of many of today’s top producers that they began with a small tract of land and possibly a kind farming neighbor to advise them. While farming is one of the most labor intensive industries, it is also one of the most important. With our health on the line, those who labor to create our food should always be supported.
Ben Weikert of Penn State Extension is working in building two Community Clubs for 4-H in Fairfield and Gettysburg. This would require a volunteer who is interested in working with youth 8-18 years old, in a variety of programs such as science or animals. Contact Ben at 334-6271.