Our population is getting old, and the baby boomers are getting ready to retire. The same is happening with our farmers; what happens when the folks who grow our food decide to retire and not farm anymore? Will the kids take over? Will the land be sold off? We need that land for agriculture, so who gets it and for what purpose is a real concern if maintaining a safe and plentiful food supply, providing green space and rural landscapes and fostering rural communities and economies is important!
The USDA Agricultural Census service has been tracking the “graying” population of farmers, and the fastest growing group is over 65. This trend has been occurring for some time, as fewer and fewer young people have been returning to the farm, and between 2002 and 2007 alone, the number of farmers over 65 grew by nearly 22 percent. The USDA analysis states that, “for every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older!”
The key to maintaining these lands in agricultural production is farm succession planning and programs that help farmers develop these plans that enable a smooth transition to a younger generation of farm managers. Here in Wisconsin, our farmers are bucking the national trend as usual, and we can proudly say that we are in the top 5 US states with the youngest age of head farm operators. Why is this? Is it quality of life, or a state philosophy that engenders good planning? Either way, it is a positive sign for our rural communities, the long-term beauty of agricultural landscapes and the plentiful food supply that we rely on.
Wisconsin’s potato growers provide us with a good example that illustrates the incorporation of a younger generation into farm management. In the winter of 2013/14, the Wisconsin potato growers developed a sustainability assessment to look at important issues such as farm succession planning. Our progressive growers demonstrated the move toward younger farmers with the average age of those who run our potato and vegetable farming operations averaging just less than 47 years old. Perhaps even more importantly, 64% of the farms said they have farm succession plans in place to ensure the future of their operations. This provides us long-term stability and ensures food security in the production of high quality potato and vegetable products for future generations. Growing potato and vegetables is a complicated business requiring the accumulation of knowledge and experience over time, coupled with the drive to incorporate new technologies to improve productivity. For long-term continuity and maximum efficiency, there is a great value in having multiple generations working together on the farm. In the recent survey of Wisconsin potato growers, 100% of the participating farm operations (representing 90% of the industry) were from family farms that averaged 2-3 generations of families working together on the farm.
The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association encourages young farmers to transition to leadership roles among their operations. Each year, they support the Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI) to encourage young farmers to learn the business and leadership aspects of the potato and vegetable industries. According to Duane Maatz, Executive Director of the WPVGA, “The Potato Industry Leadership Institute is the opportunity of a lifetime. PILI provides an industry learning experience while developing new leaders. The Institute creates direction for our newest members, building lifelong friendships and business relationships.” Our photo above shows this transition in progress with current PILI enrollee, JD Schroeder from Antigo with his father John T. and PILI graduate, Andy Diercks from Coloma, with his father Steve.
But there is still more work to do, to make sure other members of the agricultural community are looking at successful farm succession planning. There are many resources through state and University services. The general steps in farm succession planning include: defining farming, personal, family and business objectives; identifying who the successor(s) should be; analyzing financial viability and profitability of the farm business; and finally designing, developing and writing the plan.
Agricultural systems have become increasingly specialized to maintain the quality, safety, security and affordability of our food supply. Specific knowledge of the crop intricacies and very specialized techniques take years to learn, and the younger generation are the ones to keep pushing the envelope! It is important to make sure they are fully involved, educated and ready to take over—keeping our agriculture viable for the long-term should be a priority for all of us!