Finding and Educating the Next Generation of Farmers – Views from a Young Farmer

Posted by on June 5th, 2015 | 0 Comments »

By Emily Ardalan, GHI Public Affairs and Research Intern

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This summer, the Global Harvest Initiative team is joined by a new intern, Emily Ardalan. A rising junior at Cornell University, Emily is studying Agricultural Science and Environmental Science and Sustainability. She is passionate about agricultural and environmental issues; she believes action in these areas is crucial if we are to meet emerging food security issues, and further promote the development of increasingly sustainable agricultural systems. In her time at Cornell and in her work as a crop scout in Western New York, Emily has become familiar with pressing issues in agriculture, including the rising age and declining numbers of farmers worldwide.
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Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, World Food Prize Laureate and Distinguished Professor at Purdue University, with Emily Ardalan, GHI Public Affairs and Research Intern, at the AIARD conference in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, World Food Prize Laureate and Distinguished Professor at Purdue University, with Emily Ardalan, GHI Public Affairs and Research Intern, at the annual AIARD conference in Washington, D.C. Dr. Ejeta has been a partner and leader in several efforts to improve agricultural production in Africa, particularly in his home country of Ethiopia. As a researcher, he developed a drought resistant, highly adaptive cultivar of sorghum, providing over 500 million people in developing countries with reliable access to food.

A common topic in discussions on the future of agriculture, both domestically and internationally, is how to attract younger generations to agricultural careers, such as farmers and extension agents. As the world’s population continues to climb, efficient and consistent food production has never been more important—remember, it is not possible to produce food without farmers!

Demographic research from the EPA (2007) and the USDA (2012) shows that the average age of farmers both in the United States and around the world is over 55, and continues to rise. Simultaneously, the number of farmers in many rural areas in shrinking. The trend of young people leaving agricultural communities for seemingly more profitable lives in more urban areas has existed for decades around the world, and is still prevalent in both developing and developed countries.

It is vital to promote agriculture as an interesting, attractive and profitable profession for farmers on both small and commercial scales. An agricultural career can be intimidating to young adults, especially when the lure of less intensive career opportunities exists. Farming especially is prone to both production and market risks, with neither the yearly weather or market prices being certain or even predictable. Due to this risk, it can be difficult for new farmers to secure the capital and loans required to venture into farming. Huge increases in land prices, particularly in areas with high potential for urban and suburban housing development, are another significant deterrent to young farmers.

Young minds are needed not only in farming roles, but as members of other agricultural services, including extension officers, seed and equipment salespeople, and researchers. It is a huge advantage for people in those trades to have a background in agriculture, and it helps them connect with the farmers and understand the issues from their perspective. Advancements in agriculture have the potential to help farmers solve complex challenges such as threats from changing climate, pests, disease and shifting dietary demands of growing middle class populations. In order to meet these challenge, it is essential to educate, train and, inspire young farmers. However, there are many more agriculturally centered careers than just farming. Everything from marketing and quality assurance to biotechnology and environmental sciences is important to rise to the challenge of providing enough food for the world.

This is especially true for the millions of rural farming communities in developing countries. According to research from the UN FAO, family farms produce about 80 percent of the world’s food. As such a large sector of agricultural production, these farms are crucial to meeting the needs of the growing global population. However, many small farms are unable to produce enough to provide for their families, a serious issue which can deter young farmers from following an agricultural career path. The FAO supports policies which encourages the innovation necessary to increase sustainable productivity and profit for each farmer. This essential innovation is only possible through education and outreach. Through education, these farmers will contribute to the global production and help to address growing concerns over global hunger. Both young farmers and those new to farming are more likely to heed this advice and implement new systems. A key part of meeting long-term production goals is to avoid destroying the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.

There are some initiatives intended to bring in, educate, and set up new farmers. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) represents the commitment of the USDA to supporting the next generation of farmers. The program provides education, outreach, and outreach to farmers and ranchers with under 10 years of experience. In addition, there are grants available for new farming endeavors with a focus in community-based educational organizations.

The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (New Entry) is an initiative in the Northeast of the United States, which focuses on training new farmers in the sustainable production of nutritious food. They have a strong emphasis in CSA (community supported agriculture) programs to address issues of regional food issues. Many of their members have no official agricultural training and few resources. New Entry provides them with access to education and opportunities for field experience and outreach.

Staff at the New Entry Project educate new farmers, focusing on sustainable practices (above). Their focus on CSA helps address local food issues by supporting sustainable practices in the area (below). Photos courtesy of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.

Staff at the New Entry Project educate new farmers, focusing on sustainable practices. Their focus on CSA helps address local food issues by supporting sustainable practices in the area. Photos courtesy of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.

Shifting trends in agricultural demographics are not limited to the United States – the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimates that over 1.2 billion youths live in the world, with the vast majority in developing countries. In rural areas, these children face food insecurity, unemployment, and poverty.  The Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS) are a joint venture between the ILO (International Labor Organization) and FAO. Their goal is to support rural children and provide them with long-term livelihood options and food security. This program also aims to reduce unemployment and global poverty.

Students in JFFLS groups in Gaza (above) and Malawi (below) learn about agricultural methods. Photos courtesy of FAO/ Dalla Valle.

Students in JFFLS groups in Gaza (above) and Malawi (below) learn about agricultural methods. Photos courtesy of FAO/ Dalla Valle.

Farm Africa is an organization which provides education and equipment to small farmers and rural youth in order to increase their productivity, in the hopes of helping to address hunger issues in Africa. They attract new farmers, while also introducing current farmers to more productive, sustainable techniques. They also teach climate-smart agriculture practices as well as business management and marketing skills. These methods promote sustainable increases in yields, improve resiliency, mitigate climate change and address global hunger issues.

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These are just a few of the many organizations and networks which aim to support and educate the next generation of new farmers. However, the most important part is the personal contact, mentoring, and advocacy for agriculture and its many sectors, and encouraging young people to join in. Together the current generation must invite the next generation to change the image of agriculture, increase education in rural communities, and mobilize young people to agricultural careers around the world. The rewards are great – not only will this new generation of farmers supply the growing world with food, they will have an entirely deserved sense of satisfaction from fulfilling an essential purpose!

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