Slow change promises big change

Published on: 15:03PM Aug 23, 2011

Guest blogger Scott Burditt, an agribusiness marketing communications consultant, shares some of his thoughts on generational change.

You hear a lot about change and the speed of change. Farms today are not only managed differently from previous generations, you can almost watch management evolve before your eyes.

Some transformations aren’t so obvious. Generational changes, for example, evolve over time and create shifts in thinking and expectations that impact all of agriculture.

The average age of farmers in the United States is 55, putting them in the Baby Boom generation. Generally speaking, they see farming as a way of life. They’re emotionally attached to the land and passionate about their crops and equipment. This is generational change in the making.

Generation Y, people aged 19 to 32, have different ideas. They’re the largest generation of young people, not quite as big as Boomers but nearly double Gen X, the generation ahead of them. Gen Y is already demonstrating significant impact on the economy and will be the next dominant generation in America.

That they think and act differently has ramifications for the farm. In a presentation to Wisconsin agricultural lenders earlier this year, Aleta Norris, cofounder of Impact Consulting Group, told her audience that Gen Y farmers see themselves differently. They may not believe they can grow a better crop, but they do believe they can make more money per acre than their dads, she said.

When it comes to marketing, Gen Y farmers say they tend to be more proactive. They expect more from their lenders and prefer to work with a team of advisors.

Farming for them is both a way of life and a business.  Many Gen Y farmers are more passionate about number crunching than crops and equipment.  They want to grow the farm and manage it, instead of carrying the operation on their backs.  Additionally, they’re looking for ways to have more time with their families.   

Farming has been and always will be a bottom-line intensive business. Gen Y just views the business differently.

Boomer farmers planning to hand their operations off to Gen Y have seen what generational change means. Kids who do intend to carry on the business have their own style, intentions and expectations.

Gen Y has a different work ethic than Boomers, who have been characterized as nothing if not ambitious (although that go-getter attitude is cooling as Boomers, dogged by economic upheaval, get closer to retirement).

And, Gen Y takes a much different approach to work than the parents of Boomers, after whom Tom Brokaw titled his book "The Greatest Generation." Those of the World War II era typically went through hard times before prospering, made and kept commitments, and enjoyed one career until retirement.

Perhaps the biggest generational change of all will manifest through Gen Y farm kids who have other career plans.

Gen Yers are the multi-taskers, comfortable doing many things at once and not content with a single lifelong work path. It sounds like this generation will hasten the continuing consolidation of farms.

Actually, it’s already in the cards. While the average age of farmers is 55 and the number of farmers 65 and older keeps growing, the number of farm owners age 35 and under continues to decline (source: USDA 2002 Census).

Gen Y, with its own goals and ideals, is a giant, transformational wave created, ironically, by Boomers.

Scott Stewart is president and CEO of Stewart-Peterson, a commodity marketing consulting firm based in West Bend, Wis. You may reach Scott at 800-334-9779, email him at [email protected].

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