By Roger Johnson, president, National Farmers Union
Oftentimes, it’s not until life presents us with new obstacles that we reassess the situation, discover untapped resources, unused talent or new approaches that could be harnessed to meet the challenge. The lack of abundant rainfall for farming certain crops, for example, has led to the development of drip irrigation systems and new cultivars that have much lower water requirements.
Areas of the nation once considered too dry for corn are now part of the Corn Belt, and locales where once only cactus grew are now producing citrus. One of the greatest challenges facing modern American agriculture, however, is its own demographics, with the average age of the nation’s 3.2 million farm operators at 58 years old and rising daily.
Combine the aging demographics of the world’s breadbasket nation with the skyrocketing global population, and you can quickly see the makings of a major need for a new generation of farmers and ranchers who are ready to lead. Clearly, if farm organizations here and abroad do not quickly recognize and address this challenge, the talent that was in place to feed a planet of nearly 7 billion today won’t be prepared to feed the 10 billion people projected to be here in 2100.
National Farmers Union (NFU) has had a number of successful strategies to address these growing challenges. NFU’s nearly 80 year-old All-States Leadership Camp does just that, with many of the participants going on to take the reigns of important farm organizations, both domestically and internationally.
Over the course of its nearly eight decades, more than 6,100 young men and women have received leadership training in these camps. Many have gone on to take highly-visible leadership positions in agriculture, including a U.S. Senator, the president of a national farm organization, the president of an international farm organization and the director of the nation’s largest farmer-owned supply and marketing cooperative.
NFU’s Beginning Farmers Institute (BFI) is open to men and women who are new to farming, are in the process of transferring an operation from a relative or non-relative to themselves, or are seriously contemplating a career in farming or ranching. It was modeled after successful state and regional plans and is now being conducted on a national level.
BFI participants receive a year’s worth of hands-on training at no cost to themselves. BFI is unique in that the agenda is driven by the participants, allowing them to gain information on topics that will be most relevant to their particular operations. The size and diversity of the group of participants ensures valuable interaction and learning opportunities for all.
Training includes practical skills needed by beginning farmers and ranchers, including business plan writing, financial planning, and researching available programs to help start up and sustain a successful operation. To date, NFU has trained 47 beginning farmers and ranchers, most of whom are now in production agriculture.
For America’s farm organizations, there is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to educating and empowering the next generation of America’s farmers and farm leaders, but clearly the imperative is there and we all have our marching orders. Our job is clear: put in place the talent pool that will feed yet unborn generations to come, while protecting and nurturing the land that makes all of that possible.