America's Future Farmers Already Dropping Away

The average age of the American farmer is 57, and there has been a 20 percent drop in farmers under 25. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has expressed concern over the issue, and says it's a priority for his department. Host Liane Hansen speaks with two leaders of the National FFA Organization, or Future Farmers of America, about their vision of America's agricultural future.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week, many students in schools and universities around the country wore blue corduroy jackets, a reminder that they are the future of America's agriculture industry. They belong to the National FFA Organization, more commonly known as the Future Farmers of America, and they've been celebrating National FFA Week, which ended yesterday.

Although there are more than half a million FFA members across the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is concerned that fewer young people are entering the field.

Here's Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack when I spoke with him in December.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): Well, one thing I think we need to be concerned about in America is how many people are actually going to be able to farm, and how we replace those who are retiring and those who pass away. The average age of the farmer in America today is 57 today. We had a 30 percent increase in the number of farmers over the age of 75 and a 20 percent decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25.

HANSEN: Two national officers of the National FFA Organization are with us. Riley Pagett is an agricultural communications major at Oklahoma State University, and is the National FFA President. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RILEY PAGETT (President, National FFA): Thank you very much for having us.

HANSEN: And Wyatt DeJong is the Central Region Vice President. He's an agriculture education and animal science major at South Dakota State University, and we've reached him in North Carolina. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. WYATT DEJONG (Vice President, Central Region, FFA): It is my pleasure. Thank you so much.

HANSEN: A pleasure to talk to you. You both heard what Secretary Vilsack had to say. Wyatt DeJong, why do you think fewer young people are going into the agricultural field?

Mr. DEJONG: I know agriculture, specifically at a production side, is one that is a very costly business to get into. The input cost seems to be going up each and every day, and I know young people like myself see that as a very major issue and a very large challenge. Though I think the FFA and the youth involved with that are ready to meet that challenge, it is still a very hefty burden for us to get into production agriculture.

I think with agriculture evolving over the course of time, the careers in agriculture seem to be broadening to many different options that students can get involved in, whether that be the agro-business or agro-science. You know, with increasing global population, it's very necessary for our food to increase. And I know FFA members and agriculturalists both are working together to be able to meet that need to see the growing global population.

HANSEN: You make a good point that having a career in farming doesn't necessarily mean that you're tending crops or raising animals. As you mentioned, there's bio-technology and agro-business, too. Wyatt, let me stay with you: what do you think would make more people want to go into the field? What incentives are there?

Mr. DEJONG: Incentives to come into farming really have been changing over the course of the years. I know for me I come from a third-generation beef cattle operation. And having that heritage there is more of an incentive for me to stay within production agriculture based on the high-input costs that are there.

I think now the USDA have made many options available for young farmers to start with beginning loans to start a successful business.

HANSEN: Riley Pagett, as national Future Farmers of America president, tell us in a nutshell if you can how your organization prepares students for careers in the agriculture industry.

Mr. PAGETT: Definitely our organization today prepares young people for not only what Wyatt was talking about, production agriculture, but for also agro-business, agro-communications, agro-science. We are no longer just an organization for farmers and tending to the crops. But while we hold that important and while we hold that true and we value that, we're also an organization that educates others, that communicates to others, that finds careers in biotechnologies and other support systems in agriculture.

There are more than 300 different types of careers in agriculture today and our organization is doing all that we can to fill those careers with knowledgeable persons in the FFA and agricultural education.

HANSEN: Wyatt DeJong and Riley Pagett are national officers of the FFA organization, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America. Thank you both.

Mr. DEJONG: Thank you so much.

Mr. PAGETT: Thank you very much for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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