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The Young Grower Alliance: Future Faces in Agriculture

Posted: November 30, 2010

Computational linguist. Global business strategist. Polymer engineer. Young people are now faced with a dizzying array of choices when deciding on a future career. What about farmer?
Dr. Katie Ellis, Ag Innovations for Specialty Crops Educator

With the fast-paced draw of urban life, it seems odd, even quaint, to imagine college graduates returning to the farm. Whether we can imagine it or not, it’s happening — and we’re finding intelligent, motivated young leaders that offer exciting prospects for the next generation in agriculture.

In 2005, two Penn State Cooperative Extension educators and a small group of young growers in the Mid-Atlantic region decided to form a coalition with a simple mission: to encourage, develop, support and equip the next generation of specialty crop growers. They decided to call themselves the Mid-Atlantic Young Grower Alliance (YGA). The group was innovative in that it addressed the needs of fruit and vegetable growers, instead of the traditional emphasis on young farmers with animal and field crops.

Since then, YGA membership has swelled to approximately 150 members. These Gen X and Y’ers have grown up in the age of lightning-fast communication and social media, so they conduct group business primarily through an email listserv. They also dropped ―Mid-Atlantic‖ from their name, since it didn’t reflect the members signing up from New England, Canada and other regions.

The YGA identified several initiatives to help them grow individually and as a group. These encompass leadership development, the sharing of diversification and marketing ideas, exploration of new innovations, farm transition education, volunteerism and mentorship. Farm tours like those to Milburn Orchards, Flinchbaugh’s Orchard, Weaver’s Orchard, Orr’s Farm Market, Keim Orchards and Adams County Nursery showcase the young growers’ own farms and help newcomers learn different production and marketing techniques.

The camaraderie and group dynamics in the YGA are remarkably strong. It’s fascinating to hear group discussions among members, especially in the van during farm tours. The air almost buzzes with new ideas: ―We tried [some production technique], but a different option worked better‖ or ―Our customers really liked this idea at our market.‖ Ideas flow freely, and members say they learn better in a peer-friendly environment. These young people are even regarded as experts in their own right, especially on topics like blogging and the use of Facebook and Twitter to grow a customer base and their farm brand.

The group is attracting a lot of positive attention from national and international industry and leadership organizations. In March, the YGA hosted the prestigious Nuffield International Scholars at a leadership forum to discuss the future of local and global agriculture. Both groups were mutually impressed with each other and were eager to share ideas. U.S. Apple Association also sponsored Capitol Hill Day visits for several YGA members and young growers from other fruit-growing regions. As we’ve found, the fruit industry is embracing this new generation and encouraging them to participate in the leadership of regional, national and international organizations.

YGA members are also finding ways to give back to the community. The young growers volunteer their time at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, donate fruits and vegetables through a local gleaning network and are helping support underserved farmers in Central America with a donation of soil testing equipment. The group also supports seminars to ease communication between all generations on the farm – last year, the YGA sponsored a popular new Farm Transition Planning workshop for specialty crop growers.

Are YOU a Young Grower? 

If you are new to the fruit industry, or are part of the next generation on a family farm, please consider joining the YGA! All young growers are invited to the annual member luncheon to be held February 1, 2011 at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA. Mark your calendar and plan to join us to catch up with your peers in the fruit industry!

YGA activities are generously supported by the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania and the Horticultural Society of Maryland. For more information about the YGA, please contact Katie Ellis, Penn State Ag Innovations Extension Educator, at kag298@psu.edu or 717-334-6271.