Advice to 1st Generation Farmers

Published on: 15:05PM Mar 20, 2017

Contrary to many alarmists, there is no shortage of young people wanting to farm. But what advice should geezers like me give them?

"My goal is to become a successful, 1st-gen cattle producer.  And while my local peers are more than willing to help and share their information, it is often irrelevant to my situation because they are 3rd, 4th and 5th gen farmers with established land, process, and machinery, coupled with decades of hands on training from elder family members. It seems my biggest challenge is the daily psychological battle to overcome the widespread belief that ‘a small guy’ just can't start a successful operation from scratch these days."

That's from Kyler Tarwater in Valley Falls, Kan. Older farmers frankly struggle with this question from younger aspiring producers for good reason. We want to be realistic without being negative. Those goals are hard to balance.

As you have noted yourself, most of your peers are not first generation. Given agriculture's accelerating shift from labor intensive to capital intensive, and coupling that with the high value we accord multi-generation farms, the odds of success for startup operations are very long indeed. But not zero.

It seems to me the most likely paths are those that capitalize on young farmer assets like the better training and enormous energy. This suggests innovative, high value production, like organic or some other labor intensive product. I cannot speak to the cattle industry- it's been decades since our feedlot emptied, but we have a neighbor who is beginning a herd of miniature cattle, for many of the reasons you mentioned.

I would also suggest that your early career should be split between building your operation and employment. Young producers have too much value to offer the labor market and those skills and energy often cannot be fully absorbed on a small farm.

Take advantage of every learning opportunity, even those that may seem unrelated. Information is cheap, and teamed with imagination you may be able to connect ideas with opportunities.

Finally, set benchmarks by which you measure progress and determine the viability of your dream. One of the saddest outcomes for young farmer families is being unable to realize when to pursue another dream.