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As farmers age, agriculture community tries to recruit, retain young farmers

Tuesday, April 11, 2017   (0 Comments)
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By: Jim Dayton, GazetteXtra

JANESVILLE—When Sheila Everhart enters an elementary classroom to talk to kids about agriculture, she often begins by asking three questions.

“How many of you live on a farm?” Sometimes, only one or two hands shoot up.

“How many of you know someone who lives on a farm?” A few more hands.

“How many of you have ever been to a farm?” More hands still.

Everhart, the Rock County coordinator for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau's Ag in the Classroom program, wants her lessons to appeal to all students, not just those with farming backgrounds. Her goal is to educate kids about where their food comes from and introduce them to career opportunities in agriculture, she said.

The message is more important than ever.

Over the past few decades, the average age of Wisconsin farmers has crept steadily upward. In 1982, a typical farmer was 48 years old; in the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census in 2012, the average Wisconsin farmer was 56.

It must be noted that farming does not have a normal retirement age like most other industries. Some farmers might retire, in the sense they are no longer the farm's primary operator, but continue to work as long as their health allows.

But their average age is rising in one of the strongest agricultural states. And many non-farmers are so far removed from the fields that they wouldn't even consider the industry's many career options, often because they don't know the options.

Reversing those trends may be the key to preserving farming's next generation.


Vaughn Johnson, a cattle and beef farmer in Shopiere, sometimes works with Everhart during Ag in the Classroom events to teach kids about farming. Whether they understand his message usually depends on where the school is located, he said.

In rural areas, students are more familiar with agriculture, even if they don't live on a farm. But when he visits classrooms in Janesville or Beloit, engaging kids is much more difficult, he said.

Johnson isn't deterred from telling his story. Some tidbit from his own background might stick in a student's mind and make him or her consider going into agriculture, he said.

Arch Morton Jr., who grows crops on his town of La Prairie farm, shares the same philosophy. He is an advocate for agriculture education and youth outreach, and any time he can do both at the same time, it's a “win-win,” he said.

“We can teach kids about where food comes from or encourage them to grow up and maybe be a farmer or be involved in some type of agriculture,” Morton Jr. said. “Whatever we can do for the kids and agriculture is very important to us.”

While guest speakers such as Johnson or Morton Jr. can give students a real-life example of a longtime farmer, it's a fleeting presentation. High school agriculture classes can make education a consistent part of a student's schedule.

Elkhorn High School has one of the most prestigious agriculture programs in the country. Last year, it was one of six recipients of a national award from the National Association of Agricultural Educators.

David Kruse, Elkhorn's agricultural sciences instructor, said the program earned the award because it is so comprehensive. Its curriculum includes courses on animal science, food science and more, and the program encourages students to get involved in FFA.

It also requires students to do some sort of resume-building activity for at least eight hours each trimester, although many exceed the minimum requirement. This can be work-related experience, community service or extra research, Kruse said.

Farming has transformed in recent decades, with massive crop and dairy operations becoming the norm. As farms get larger and more productive, they will require employees who understand business, agronomy, engineering and other fields, Kruse said.

For students to understand agriculture's many career opportunities, they need to get outside the classroom and immerse themselves in the industry, he said.

“When students think of their career options, they're familiar with careers on TV or their parents' careers,” Kruse said. “We don't understand stuff if we're looking through windows or magazines.”


Some people are still fixated on working the land, even if there are many new career avenues within agriculture. Leo Ehlen, 16, is a sophomore in Kruse's agriculture classes and has spent much of his life helping on the family farm just north of Elkhorn.

Ehlen wants to take over the farm one day and gradually expand the operation. He's grown up around farming and knows what challenges come with the business, he said.

He has developed a strong interest in agriculture--from his home life to Kruse's classes to showing animals at the Walworth County Fair through 4-H. But his involvement in FFA and a trip to the FFA national convention gave him something he couldn't find in a textbook—a social network of other young farmers.

“There were tons of people (at the convention) interested in the same stuff. I can relate to some of the people,” Ehlen said. “Not everybody in 4-H is a farmer … when I got to the FFA convention, they just all knew.”

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau recognizes that some young farmers might feel ostracized in an industry that continues to get older. It developed a program called Young Farmers and Agriculturists that helps those between the ages of 18 and 35 meet other people their age with similar career goals.

Emily Johnson, 23, is the program's co-chair in Rock County and still works on her family's farm in the town of Plymouth. But she never did 4-H or FFA while growing up, so she wasn't directly exposed to other farm kids, she said.

She joined Young Farmers and Agriculturists three years ago and said it was “refreshing” to know she wasn't the only person her age interested in agriculture. Johnson now helps coordinate social events for others, such as Jacob Bobolz, who feel like she once felt.

Bobolz, 24, does crop and livestock farming in the town of Bradford. When he joined Young Farmers and Agriculturists, he was surprised at the “strength in numbers” the program offered.

“I thought I was the only one who had to go through this. When I joined the YFA, it really brought hope that there was multiple people like me,” Bobolz said. “I got to meet more young farmers like myself. It just kind of gives you a whole different boost of confidence to keep pursuing your dreams.”


There could be more people joining the program's county chapters if a bill providing student loan relief to young farmers passes the state Legislature. Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, worked on the bill with Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, to reduce financial barriers for those who want to get started in farming, Spreitzer said.

Land and machinery are costly investments for anyone trying to break into agriculture. Many young farmers have decided to attend college for more education as farming becomes more complex, creating a hurdle of capital costs and student loan debt, Spreitzer said.

The bill would provide up to $30,000 in student loan relief for those committed to farming for at least five years. Spreitzer heard about the issue from Matthew Walthius, his classmate at Beloit College who is now the manager of The Wright Way organic produce farm near Beloit.

Walthius, 24, never envisioned a career in agriculture. He grew up outside Chicago and studied sociology, but he became fascinated with environmental sustainability and the local food movement while in college, he said.

While many would-be farmers get into the business through their families, Walthius saw opportunity in niche agriculture, such as organic produce. He has “two dozen” friends who would break further into small farming if they weren't battling startup costs and student loans, he said.

“I talk to other young people my age who are interested and can't make the initial jump into farming,” Walthius said. “A lot of my fiends from college work on different farms, and a lot of us feel we won't be able to own our own farm within next decade.”

The Farm Bureau and many FFA alumni chapters offer college scholarships for those who want to study agriculture. But those resources are limited.

Despite the challenges, the interest is there. Many academic backgrounds can find jobs in agriculture-related fields, and for those still enamored with actual farming, the responsibilities beat working in an office.

“I really love working on the farm and working outside. I love growing food for people, healthy, delicious food,” Walthius said. “We offer them a really healthy diet that's healthy for them and healthy for the planet.

"That's a really gratifying feeling.”

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