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Rural America isn’t the hot spot for young adults. According to the latest USDA Ag census, the number of beginning farmers is down 20%. Where are America’s future farmers? The root of the problem is they’re migrating away from rural communities. It’s a complex issue and I have several thoughts as to why farming isn’t as appealing to many as urban job opportunities.
Better financial opportunities elsewhere. Jacob C. Toews’ article, The Disappearing Family Farm, on realtruth.org, states “Many young couples are unwilling to invest $500,000 in a business that requires them to work 12-16 hours per day throughout most of the year and then get a return that amounts to the equivalent of what a farmers’ wages would have been 30 years ago.” While I don’t believe wages are THAT low, it does hold some truth. USDA’s Rural America at a Glance, 2014 Edition, writes “Many young adults leave rural areas to attend college, and many of these people remain in urban areas after college due to the higher earnings available to them in those areas.” This suggests better financial opportunities in urban living—possibly with no investment.
Time may not be the issue. Working 12-16 hours a day may not be the problem. Many young adults choose time-demanding occupations similar to agriculture, but not in rural areas. Quality of life is viewed as better in urban areas. Cities offer better entertainment, technology, health care, and schools. Not to mention the younger generation is reputed for wanting more “play” time that many rural communities don’t offer. I fight to defend my generation, but we do demand a work-life balance more so than previous generations.
The population is detached from agriculture. Food, for example, is taken for granted because it’s readily accessible. City-dwellers may even eat better due to more groceries and restaurants. Children are growing up thinking food comes from a store and not a farm because that’s all they’ve ever experienced. It’s important to appreciate where food comes from. Last year, I struggled to eat a deer killed in a nearby field. Why? Because it was too real. I’m surrounded by nature and still struggle with the reality of where my food comes from. It’s psychologically easier to buy meat in a store.
It takes two. Another consideration is the family unit. It takes both spouses to want to live in rural areas. Production agricultural businesses are called “family” businesses because it’s a lifestyle in which everyone is impacted—both for good and bad. As fewer people come from rural areas, it’s more difficult to find a spouse willing to make that transition because it’s not what he or she has ever experienced. It may also be more difficult for the off-farm spouse to find work.
Farmers aren’t looking for successors. My father said he didn’t feel he had a choice but to farm. It was expected of him and he didn’t force that upon me. I’ve heard many in the older generation of farmers say they don’t want their children to have to work as hard as they did. The younger generation is not being forced to farm and sometimes even discouraged from it. The successors may be seeking farm opportunities, but the older farmers are dragging their feet in many cases. The older farmers aren’t explaining the benefits of farming and the love they have for the community. Most never wanted it any other way, yet aren’t telling that side of the story.
The rite of passage is challenging in rural areas. Small communities are welcoming, but it often takes ties to both the location and farming to move and work there. You need a specific education and large assets to farm with or without ties to a farm operation. It’s difficult to start farming from scratch if you don’t have someone to help get started. I would not have moved to a small community to farm had I not had my dad to get me started.
Ag jobs are strong beyond farming. Even rural jobs opportunities in ag don’t favor being a producer. Input suppliers, for example, haven’t adjusted prices to lower commodity prices. This means they can pay excellent wages and compete for skilled workers that could have chosen farming. The jobs don’t require the huge investment of time and money like farming either.