OUR OPINION: Cultivating interest in farming

While we celebrate agriculture's position as Missouri's No. 1 industry, farming is flirting with the end of its ancestral line.

And that's real cause for concern.

First, the good news:

Missouri agriculture employs nearly 460,000 people across the Show-Me State.

Missouri agriculture canvasses 27.8 million acres of farmland.

The economic contribution of agriculture to the Missouri economy is $93.7 billion annually.

Missouri is home to 95,000 farms, the second most in the nation.

Now, the cause for concern:

The average age of the Missouri farmer is 59.4 years, according to 2019 data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The USDA's 2022 Census of Agriculture showed the average age of farm producers nationally increased from 56.3 to 57.5 years from 2012 to 2017.

Frankly, interest in farming by young people has been waning, in part because it's a tough job and it's just becoming harder to make a living off the land.

Farm expenses such as land, labor and farm equipment continue to increase or are holding near record highs. Those expenses are projected to hit a record-high in 2023, up 28 percent under the current administration.

Couple that sobering news with the long, hard days of a farmer, and it's easy to see why the ranks of future farmers are growing thinner and older.

But a couple solutions may be on the horizon.

Using a $5 million USDA grant, Lincoln University will be exploring how to grow a diverse next generation of agriculture professionals.

"Demand for a diverse talented workforce further strains the supply of next-generation agriculture workforce," said a USDA summary of the grant. "Motivating young, talented minority students to join the workforce in agriculture is pivotal to maintain the competitiveness of U.S. food and agricultural industry and its sustainability."

Lincoln will be partnering with a consortium of three other universities on the project, said the grant's lead investigator, John Yang. Lincoln will receive $5 million of the funds, Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, will receive $2.5 million and Texas A&M University and the Missouri University of Science and Technology will each receive $1.25 million.

Lincoln's funds will primarily be used for its undergraduate and graduate programs. The largest proportion of the money will go to supporting student scholarship and research, including developing hands-on research projects for students.

The university will also use the funds to reach out to kindergarten through 12th-grade students in order to recruit for Lincoln's agriculture major. This includes activities like summer camps, field trips, career fairs and high school visits to share information about the agriculture research academic program and make them more aware of agriculture and food production. The program will bring awareness of the industry to younger people.

A different effort, lead by Ag Ed on the Move, is also focusing its attention on recruiting the next generation at a very young age.

Ag Ed on the Move is a part of Missouri Farmers Care and involves the state agriculture department and various state commodity organizations.

Members of the organization go into classrooms, typically third grade, as guest presenters across Missouri and teach third-graders about agriculture. They will teach 10 lessons about topics from crop and livestock production, soil and water conservation, nutrition, agricultural careers, where food comes from and how state agriculture affects them every day. It's free for schools to participate.

"We think it's just great to plant that seed so early because it's just not something that maybe comes up in those early career discussions at school and at various events like that," said Heather Fletcher, program director at Agriculture Education on the Move.

We laud the efforts of these programs and others that seek to cultivate a renewed industry in agriculture.

The industry's future, and ours as a society, may very well depend upon the success of those efforts.

-- News Tribune

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