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The Ag Removed Generation
Zoë Womack, Policy and Research Intern
Between growing up in Arizona and traveling constantly to California, one may think that I would have been more aware of the agriculture scene taking place in my neck of the woods; however, you would be mistaken.
The United States Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, remarked that 98 percent of Americans are several generations removed from direct farming, and I can admit to being a part of this “Ag Removed Generation.” Based on my childhood, I pictured agriculture to be similar to the small scale producers I saw in the Southwest: vegetable gardens, chicken coops, and some cotton fields. In high school I learned that “food will win the war,” and so the idea of farming seemed something that ended with World War II back in 1945, rather than anything innovative and cutting-edge.
For those of us who do grow up in urban areas, we are less exposed to the importance and necessity of the food system. I spent 16 years of my life without ever questioning where my food came from or how it was made. But more recently, I decided to step out of naivety and into the realities of the agriculture sector to learn more about nutrition, food security and how to fight hunger.
When it comes to the conversation of farming, I seem to encounter three types of millennials.
First, there are the few, that 2 percent Secretary Vilsack mentioned, who are very in tune with what occurs in agriculture because they have grown up around it. They associate certain seasons with production activities, such as preparing the soil, seeding, and harvesting. There are even those who not only know how to milk a cow, but also know the delicate art of showing a cow, an activity that I didn’t know existed until recently.
Secondly, there are the group of millennials who are not directly involved in or familiar with the nuances of agriculture, but they have a passion to participate in this sector. They may have started with an interest in human nutrition, but soon realized the larger connections in farm-to-plate nutrition.
Lastly, there are the millennials who are either unaware, misguided, or dismissive of the entire food system. Unfortunately, this is where most of my generation lies. Millennials have a shown the desire to change public preferences in food, and actually it’s pretty trendy to be a “foodie.” There is, however, a large population of these “foodies” who lack direct experience about the realities of the agriculture sector. Instead of understanding the challenges of the modern farmer or the large scale food system, they focus on fad diets like “gluten-free,” “lactose-free,” or “rBST free” without ever knowing the science behind the language.
An additional challenge our generation faces is that many farmers are beginning to retire and end their farming career. So how do we educate a generation who thinks they’re already in-the-know about agriculture? And how do we encourage our generation to take up this challenging, but regarding business of food production?
This is where I am fairly stumped myself, but I believe education is the key to reconnecting our millennial generation with agriculture. We need to create an environment that promotes agriculture education and fosters those who do want to enter into this sector. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is an organization that advocates a clear message on the necessity of support for this upcoming generation.
Other organizations, such as FFA and 4H are also focusing on building and developing next generation leaders by engaging our youth in after-school activities that grow their talents and explore their interests in the agriculture sector.
In addition, I think there needs to be a push to develop “Ag in the classroom” and extracurricular programs that allow young students to see the realities of farming. If we are going to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050, we need a generation who is willing to take part in agriculture and who can make it as “up-and-coming” as it has the potential to be.