WASHINGTON, Aug. 11, 2014 – If farmers’ political power could be measured by passion, the 50 young farm leaders we featured in our “Packing Political Punch in Rural America” series are already off the charts in terms of influence.
They are bright, eager and willing to share their knowledge in so many different ways and from so many different places across the country.
They farm near the streets of a state capitol, grow sugar cane in the Sunshine State and move cattle across the mountains of Montana. They have farms as small as 3.5 acres and as large as almost 25,000.
They serve as board members of commodity organizations and farm groups, or use social media to connect with consumers. One serves in his state’s senate, while others reach people through visits to Capitol Hill. Some serve on single boards important to their operations, while others are involved in leadership roles too numerous to list.
They’re descendants of generations who’ve worked the soil, or first-generation farmers hoping to leave a legacy for their own offspring. Nearly all are college-educated, with degrees in fields ranging from agricultural economics to business to food sciences. Many are also graduates of community, commodity or agricultural leadership programs.
They have one thing in common – they’re speaking up today and destined to be the voice of agriculture in the future.
Reversing trend lines
As the sixth and final piece of our six-part series, Agri-Pulse asked 50 young leaders in agriculture under the age of 50 to talk about issues they’d like to see addressed, to share their visions for the future in the face of changing rural demographics. Last, but not least, we asked them to provide some words of wisdom for other young people looking to lead agriculture in the future.
These young leaders understand that the American farm population is also growing older, with the average farmer’s age increasing from 57.1 in 2007 to 58.3 in the 2012 Ag Census. That trend is not surprising, but the number of new farmers – a talent pool which could eventually replace those nearing retirement age -- does not appear to be keeping pace.
The number of new, beginning farmers shrunk by 23.3 percent since the last Census was released in 2007, however, those farmers who started farming 10 years ago (between 2003 and 2007) fared slightly better – their numbers only decreased by 19.6 percent.
This group is determined to do what they can, through local initiatives and state and federal programs, to try and reverse that trend in declining farm numbers.
A farm bill, at last
Among these young leaders, many made visits to Capitol Hill – some once, some numerous times over the past few years – to talk one-on-one with legislators, testify before committees, lobby on behalf of their commodity groups or farmer organizations as Congress worked on the Agricultural Act of 2014.
Even those who didn’t have a direct role in forming policy usually followed the farm bill’s progress, some more closely than others.
When asked to rate the farm bill on a scale from one to 10, with one being the best outcome, some chose not to answer, but of those who did, nearly half gave it three or four. Overall, these farmers said, they were pretty pleased with it.
Kentucky farmer Quint Pottinger says, “I was just happy we got one.” It was a long time coming.
As far as the nutrition portion of the bill goes, farmers who addressed it were divided. Some think it belongs in the overall comprehensive bill, while others would like to see it separated from the agriculture section – as House GOP lawmakers tried to do in 2013.
Several of the farmer-leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude in one regard – they feel there are still unknowns about the bill’s implementation and want to see how it plays out.
To be sure, plenty of agricultural issues are still unresolved, creating concern for America’s farmers. Agri-Pulse asked the farmers interviewed to share a few topics they’d like to see addressed in pending or future legislation.
The top topic mentioned by almost half of the young leaders was water. For many, the proposed EPA action concerning the Clean Water Act and definition of the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) is creating big worries, while in some western states, water use, water rights and lingering drought conditions leave some producers wondering how they’ll be able to continue.
With California in the fourth year of drought, Josh Pitigliano, who farms there, says water is his “number one priority.”
Not surprisingly, risk management is also high on the lists of worries. Nearly a third of the farmers interviewed are concerned about safety nets for agriculture – whether through crop insurance programs and choices, livestock risk protection, commodity payments, or the dairy margin protection program.
Federal government oversight – on a variety of issues, from the “right to farm” to the ability to use modern technologies to privacy – worries more than a fifth of the farmers interviewed.
And, nearly the same share of young farmer-leaders say it’s time to act on immigration reform. Immigration is a concern for growers in areas where manual labor is crucial to production – for crops such as fruits and vegetables and in the dairy industry – even among farmers who don’t use migrant workers themselves. They see the impact on nearby growers and the local economy.
Brenda Frketich, who farms in Oregon, says, “I know farmers who lost their crops because they couldn’t find enough labor [to harvest them].”Josh Moore, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribe farming in Arizona, is no stranger to the immigration issue. He says he attended school with a diverse group of students, some of whom weren’t legal citizens. “We need a working immigration system,” Moore says. “Literally, we can’t find people to work for us.”
Trade is a big concern for about a fifth of the young leaders. Commodity farmers know the important role American products play in the world market, especially looking to a world population of nearly 9.5 billion to be fed by 2050 – up from about 7.2 billion now – and with competition from some of our neighbors to the south. A particular facet of trade, Mexican sugar dumping, is of special concern among the beet and cane farmers in the group.
Rural development, the graying of America’s farmers, and transportation were hot topics, too.
Several farmers expressed concern about the revitalization of rural America and the need for reliable Internet connectivity.
Having Internet you can count on in a rural community, Nebraskan Zach Hunnicutt says, “is key to whether we can keep up.”
The farmers interviewed are concerned about the aging of the farm population, with the 2012 Census of Agriculture showing the average age of the American farmer at 58.3. The young farmers want to see more encouragement and support for beginning farmers, for careers in agriculture, and for availability of credit, including on America’s Indian reservations.
Transportation issues worry several – from maintenance of locks and dams to trucking and emission regulations. Growers with commodities to move are concerned about being able to move them and are worried about America’s ability to remain competitive without an adequate infrastructure.
Still other farmers expressed concern about topics including conservation, USDA programs and funding for farm programs, as well as renewable fuels, the nutrition program, GMO labeling, organic standards and the Food Safety Modernization Act. Some are worried, too, about the business climate (unemployment, taxes and estate planning) and issues related to animals (including antibiotics, manure management, horse slaughter and animal welfare standards.)
Changes on the horizon
So what lies ahead for farming?
If these farmer-leaders are good at forecasting the future, it’s change – especially in size of farms and the use of technology.
Jacob Chisholm, a young Minnesota farmer, believes the profession “will change a lot faster, more often.”
“There’s a great deal of opportunity, and a great deal of vulnerability,” Chisholm says.
Along the same lines, state Senator Jason Frerichs of South Dakota says he sees farmers “becoming more adaptable and welcoming to all aspects of production agriculture.”
Nearly a third of the farmers interviewed addressed the issues of farm size, declining rural population, and urbanization. Many see more consolidation, larger farms and fewer family farms.“We would be shortsighted,” Frerichs says, “to say there’s a perfect way.”
Leaders like Vena A-dae Romero, an attorney who farms with her family in New Mexico and Hawaii, would like to see more family-based farms, and Florida sugar grower Keith Wedgworth hopes young people stay in farming. Wedgworth recognizes it’s harder to get into the profession and says he hopes America can keep its farms viable for future generations. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” Wedgworth says.
Zach Ducheneaux, a South Dakotan who raises cattle and horses, hopes American agriculture can find a happy medium between so-called “factory” farms and family farming.
And, perhaps it can. As large farms get larger and some small farms go away, Louisiana sugar farmer Patrick Frischhertz sees other small farms starting up in response to the growing desire for organic and locally grown foods, which helps to build that connection with where food comes from.
Quint Pottinger, a Kentucky farmer who grows not only traditional row crops but also some vegetables, says, “We’ve got new young producers coming in because of local food markets.”
Several farmer-leaders addressed the desire for consumers to have choices in the food they eat and the way it’s produced – and many spoke of the increasingly important need for producers to have conversations with consumers.
“Choices look different to different people,” says professional speaker and dairy farmer Michele Payn-Knoper.
With those choices come opportunities for more crop diversity, including some age-old, but new- -to-the-U.S. crops. Nebraska farmer Zach Hunnicutt says some farmers are growing an ancient Ethiopian grain, teff, in response to consumers requesting gluten-free diets.
Most agree the need for conversations with consumers is crucial, with less than 2 percent of Americans farming today.
“The further people are removed, the less they understand,” says Colleen Gerke, who owns a vineyard and winery in western Missouri.
Many of the farmer-leaders talked about the increasing role technology plays in farming – how it is increasing efficiency and production, reducing labor costs, and doing things that would have seemed a few years ago to be even too futuristic for the Jetsons.
Jeff VanderWerff, a Michigan farmer and president of Ag Chat Foundation, believes agriculture is going to speed up. He spoke of watching John Deere’s 2012 “Farm Forward” video again recently. The technology seemed futuristic when the video was released. “[Today,] I’m doing everything in that video,” he says.
The farmers interviewed see ever-evolving technology – not only in the use of new electronics for communication, in production and in the use of data, but in the development of new ways to feed the growing world population.
Several of the farmers also spoke of the growing need for farmers to “get educated” – at colleges or universities and through continuing education.California farmer Jeff Fowle says it’s likely that “to have a future, we must find a way to shift from maximum production to optimum production.” He says farmers have to find more ways to be more efficient. This increased efficiency also needs to be applied to labor, he says, because, in California, for instance, shortage of labor is among the greatest challenges to agriculture.
New terms of engagement
For decades, anyone who wanted to be involved as an advocate for farm and rural issues had to make big sacrifices, including: traveling to distant locations, spending countless hours in meetings and finding someone to keep an eye on the farm and family while you were gone.
Not any longer. The Internet, cell phone technology and new software programs have revolutionized the way advocates work.
But even though technological changes have made important differences in the way individuals and organizations can advocate, it also requires some creative, more “entrepreneurial” thinking at the top.
Julie Anna Potts, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said her board decided about seven years ago that they had to do more to reach out to younger members in non-traditional ways or they were going to fall behind.
“We were challenged to get more members engaged to be advocates for our industry,” she told Agri-Pulse. “It’s been a very deliberate effort that requires a different manner of thinking.”
Potts says AFBF has made several internal changes, including coordinating issues management across several departments and ramping up their communications efforts. But they’ve also focused on other new opportunities.
For example, they discussed “micro-volunteering,” where an individual perhaps can’t commit to the time demands required by becoming an elected officer but can get involved for an hour or two at a time by writing letters or participating in a virtual meeting.
One of the outcomes of AFBF’s effort to grow engagement was the creation of the “Grassroots Outreach” or “GO Team” earlier this year.
Currently there are 118 GO Team members in 42 states, explains Cody Lyon, AFBF director for Grassroots and Political Advocacy. He describes them as a "tip of the spear" elite advocacy group.
“We ask the GO Team to do more than basic advocacy and be more involved in social media,” Lyon says. “This includes building relationships with lawmakers, publishing op-eds and blogs, interacting with media and other high-level advocacy tactics to advance Farm Bureau policy. We’ve asked them to provide personal, real-world examples on the most pertinent issues facing agriculture and connect to lawmakers and their staffs.”
One of the most recent examples is the “Ditch the Rule” campaign, where AFBF members have been using social media, national media appearances and even produced a popular video in an effort to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to repeal its proposed rule defining waters of the United States.
Potts says the GO Team provides an opportunity for their members to demonstrate their commitment to the industry and talk about what they do. “It’s that authentic voice that works in Congress and with the public,” she emphasizes.
Antron Williams, a sixth-generation farmer from South Carolina, talked about the importance of education for farmers “to be able to manage all of it, to stay on top of the technology.”
“Farmers are going to be more like CEOs,” says Alabama dairy farmer Will Gilmer. He sees management of the farm becoming more of a full-time job, putting farmers behind a desk even more as risks and responsibilities increase.
Yet New Mexico cattle rancher Boe Lopez believes the basic traits of farmers in America will stay the same – respect, hard work and determination.
Among other ways farmers see agriculture changing are more rules and regulations, the loss of agricultural land, and increased input cost. Grant Noland, an Illinois farmer, worries that we’re moving out of a period of tremendous profitability and into a lean time.
Kate Danner, whose family has farmed the same west central Illinois land for more than a century, worries that agriculture is not changing in a farmer-friendly way. She says, “That’s why I need to be at the table.”
Tools of the trade
The 50 young advocates for agriculture and rural America spoke of yet one more thing they see changing – the way the agricultural community works with legislators.
Agri-Pulse asked them to talk about the tactics and tools they’ll use to get their message across to the people in power going forward – and to the public that places them there.
“The biggest thing,” says Ohio farmer Gary Baldosser, “is to remain involved at some level.”
The young leaders said packing a political punch with lawmakers has four important facets – learning about candidates; voting; building relationships with legislators, their aides and government officials; and talking to those in power about agriculture and its needs.
Stacie Euken, who raises crops and livestock in Iowa, says farmers need to know their candidates, know what they stand for and know what their political party’s objectives are.
“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” Nebraska cattle farmer Anne Burkholder says.
“Always make sure people getting elected know the importance of agriculture,” says Keith Wedgworth, the Florida sugar and rice farmer.“Our decision makers are further and further removed from their agricultural roots,” says first-generation Kentucky farmer Ryan Bivens – one reason he and others believe it’s ever so important to build relationships and have conversations with lawmakers.
Californian Jeff Fowle says farmers can’t “stick their heads in the sand. [They] have to come out of their comfort zone and talk to those people.”
In politics, money talks, too – that’s why some of these young leaders stressed the importance of hosting or being involved in political fundraisers and PACs.
“Cash flow is a driving force in American politics, whether we like it or not,” VanderWerff of Michigan says.
“PAC funding is going to be huge,” Arizona farmer Josh Moore says. (See our earlier article, “PACS pave the way in rural America,” to read more about PACs and how the agriculture community uses them to pack a punch.)
“Regardless of the changing demographics, farmers and producers will always have a ‘power’ that is unyielding. We produce for our communities, for our families, for America,” Romero, the farmer with operations in Hawaii and New Mexico, says. “We may have fewer and fewer farmers and farm families, but the power is unrelenting. It’s a matter of expressing that power and influence.”
Besides the communications training many of these individuals gained through FFA, Farm Bureau, their commodity groups and agricultural leadership programs, some had communication or marketing experience through internships or jobs they held before returning to the farm. Many of them draw upon that training and experience in expressing their power and influence.
Communicate they do – through one-on-one visits with lawmakers at home and in the nation’s capital, and with consumers, using social media, educational programs and more.
Young leaders still understand the importance of telling agriculture’s story to reporters, and Missouri hog farmer Chris Chinn reminds farmers that a letter to the editor can still have power.
“If you get a captive audience, you need to make farmers their friend,” says Ben Boyd, who grows cotton and other crops and livestock in Georgia.
As for tools and tactics to influence policy in the face of changing rural demographics, Chinn says farmers need to continue to use social media.
“Social media has given us a whole new definition of ‘friends’,” Bivens says.
And, those friends are increasingly important.
Chinn says that “even if it’s one conversation at a time, people need to share.”
Zach Hunnicutt of Nebraska talked about how social media and mobile technology help spread agriculture’s message. “I can do more with a smart phone than I could have 10 or 15 years ago,” Hunnicutt says. “I can have a grassroots voice.”
“I reach so many people through social media,” Kansas farmer Stacey Forshee says, “because somebody I reached has shared.”
Several of the farmers with whom Agri-Pulse spoke also stressed the importance of educating people – young and old – about agriculture.
The farmer-leaders spoke of reaching a community through farm tours; youngsters through ag safety or Ag in the Classroom programs; and moms through blogs or programs like “Field Moms,” an initiative through which Chicago-area mothers visit farms.
John Lee and his young black farmer colleagues in Arkansas are teaching an earlier generation of farmers about new programs and technology that can make farming easier and more efficient.
There’s another facet to education – using it to encourage youth to pursue farming as a career. Burkholder, a Nebraska cattle farmer, didn’t grow up on a farm herself. She was a city kid in West Palm Beach, Florida. She’s found her place in agriculture, though – and says we’ve got to “teach kids that coming back to rural America holds a future for them.”
Aspirations of leadershipGoing forward, Chinn is hoping that next generation in agriculture will be even better communicators at a younger age. She thinks they may have more and better conversations because they have quickly adopted technology and social media and they’re “not afraid to put themselves ‘out there.’”
Some of the young leaders interviewed want to continue to be involved in their local communities or on social media, building a bridge between the farm and residents who are a couple generations removed from it, or serving their governments, grower organizations or Farm Bureaus at the local or state level. Others have higher aspirations or hope to reach a more widespread audience, maybe moving up the ladder within grower groups or farmer organizations.
Kate Danner, of Illinois, who didn’t plan to return to the farm when she went off to college but now loves her role in her family’s century-old farming operation, has this goal for now: “I’m going to be the best farmer I can be.”
Miguel Diaz, a Colorado potato grower, says his main goal is “to be a good voice for the rest of growers that don’t get involved” – for his area and in taking messages to Capitol Hill. “Everything else is a bonus,” Diaz says.
Dow Brantley, who raises rice, cotton, corn and soybeans in Arkansas, didn’t pinpoint specific goals in representing America’s farmers, but knows he’ll stay involved. “I just want to be a part of it,” he says.
“There is always going to be a need to stand up, as there are fewer and fewer of us,” Bivens says. “We’ve got to work together.”
Jacob Chisholm of Minnesota says he’s setting his goals high, hoping to serve on the board of a sugar cooperative or help lead a company someday. “We need to have people willing to stand up and be the voice,” he says.
Tamara Choat, who raises beef and horses and has a butcher shop and meat processing plant in Montana, says her leadership goals are more local. As a business owner in her community, she’d like to lead there by expanding her business and creating jobs. She says she and her husband want to be leaders in the business world in their community and their state.
South Carolina urban gardener Eric McClam says his goals are local, too. He plans to continue to promote agriculture through agri-tourism. A recent festival at his agribusiness, City Roots, drew more than 3,500 people.
McClam is not the only one who plans to continue to tell agriculture’s story to the non-farm community. Fourth-generation California farmer Josh Pitigliano says, “I think my goal is to get what we do out to the masses – out to the urban people.”
Zach Ducheneaux, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, raises cattle and quarter horses. His main goal, he says, is “to start to train the next generation of leaders” – and he’s on his way. Ducheneaux created a horsemanship internship on his farm and spoke in July to a group of young Native Americans at the Native Youth in Agriculture Summit, the brainchild of Odessa Oldham, a young Navajo ag leader from Wyoming.
Also on Oldham’s wish list is leadership within the Native American agricultural community through the Intertribal Agricultural Council or as a USDA tribal relations liaison.
Another Native American leader, Romero, wants to help tribes have stronger economies based on agriculture.
One young leader, already in politics, is looking toward agriculture’s Holy Grail. Jason Frerichs, now a state senator from South Dakota, says he’d like to be the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture someday.
Yet, as vast and varied as many of these leaders’ goals are, Idaho cattle rancher and former National FFA western region vice-president Seth Pratt shared a dream important to many of these young farmers after college. “I want to go back home and raise cows and kids,” Pratt says.
Advice to agriculture’s next generation
What advice do these young leaders have for those who will follow them?
“It doesn’t matter [at] what level,” Bivens says.One message rang clear from these people who are leaders in their farm organizations, grower groups, communities and churches: “Get involved.”
The overarching theme from many seemed to echo the Nike motto, “Just do it.”
McClam, who farms in South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia, hosts several thousand school children each year on tours. He tells the youngsters that farming is a viable career path, due to the mounting desire for uniqueness. (He raises 100 crops.) “There’s a need for more farmers,” McClam says. “We’re not replacing them as fast as they’re dying.”
“Agriculture is more than just farming,” South Carolina’s Antron Williams says. He urges young people interested in agriculture to look also into careers such as seed, biotechnology and agricultural journalism. Williams points out that there are all sorts of opportunities for agricultural advocacy.
Several leaders urge young people to grab all the opportunities they can, and many encourage building connections as early and as often as possible – in their communities, through FFA, in industry groups, with legislators, among consumers.
California rice farmer Nicole Van Vleck encourages young people to take advantage of agricultural leadership program opportunities. “You need to go to D.C.,” she says.
One of the youngest of the aspiring farmers, Minnesota’s Jacob Chisholm, who just turned 21, served in Washington as an intern for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. “Get involved,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Also, “don’t be afraid to talk to elected officials,” Chris Chinn says. “They are normal people.” Chinn is a firm believer in farmer-leaders having a 30-second “elevator speech” ready at all times.
Having other leaders to turn to is an important tool, too, these young farmers say. “Find a mentor,” is Burkholder’s advice.
With those relationships built, communication is high on the list – both listening and sharing agriculture’s story.
“You have a voice. Be sure you’re not afraid to speak up and say what you feel,” says Kansas farmer Stacey Forshee.
Yet Quint Pottinger, a Kentucky farmer, warns, “Be careful about what you say, especially in social media. Don’t ruin your reputation.”
Bivens says people used to say that a reputation built over a lifetime could be destroyed in five minutes, but with social media today, it can be destroyed in five seconds.
Having a passion for the profession was advice shared more than once.
“Find your passion and try to build your life around your passion,” Payn-Knoper advises.
And one young leader gave important advice that transcends time and profession. Josh Beckley, a customer-harvester from Kansas, says, “Honesty and a good work ethic go a long way.”
Building ag leaders – one program at a time
As Agri-Pulse spoke with emerging young leaders in agriculture for its 50 under 50 listing, a common thread was woven by these outstanding farmers. Many of the spoke of being alumni of leadership development programs.
These programs are offered by communities, corporations with roots in agriculture, farmer organizations, universities and foundations. Among the benefits they offer participants are the opportunity to build important relationships, to see beyond their farms, crops and geographic regions, to learn about the impact agriculture has on the economy, to develop communication and critical thinking skills, and to experience the workings of government.
The ‘daddy’ of ag leadership programs
Joyce Watson, a board member emeritus of the Illinois Ag Leadership Foundation, was the Illinois Leadership Development Program’s founding president and CEO. In a 2012 video tribute, Watson called Dr. Russell G. Mawby, chairman emeritus of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, “the father of the ag leadership programs.”
During the 1960’s, when Mawby, who grew up on a family farm in Michigan, was on the faculty of Michigan State University, he was among a group of faculty members charged with developing a proposal for an agricultural leadership development program. In 1965, while working as the director of the department of agriculture at the Kellogg Foundation, in a partnership between the foundation and the University, Mawby saw the Kellogg Farmer Study Program become a reality in 1965. Since then, more than 12,000 leaders are graduates of programs with origins in the MSU model.
How it all started
As agriculture grew more complex in the first two decades after World War II, leaders in the farm community needed a broader understanding of the world and issues impacting the sector.
“Over time, because of the changing nature of political processes, we needed to have farm leadership who would be sensitive, understanding of those changes and the importance to have an understanding beyond leaders in farming,” Mawby said in the video.
Where the programs are now
Today, agricultural leadership programs exist in more than 40 states – ranging from Alabama to West Virginia, Montana to California and many states in between. Among their alumni are leaders such as Kansas Farm Bureau President Steve Baccus, Lee Strom, board member and past chair and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration, and Wendall Schauman, past chair of the U.S. Grains Council.
Ag leadership programs are also offered by ag-related corporations and grower groups. For example, for more than 30 years, DuPont and the American Soybean Association have identified and developed leaders through the ASA DuPont Young Leader program. Since 1998, Syngenta Crop Protection and the American Peanut Shellers Association have sponsored the Peanut Leadership Academy.
The objective of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee is to find and develop young leaders. The National Farmers Union hosts a number of educational programs, including a Beginning Farmers Institute.
An even earlier start
Yet even before many of these 50 farmer-leaders we spoke to were old enough to attend such ag leadership programs, some were already leading in 4-H or FFA.
Since 1902, youth have served as leaders in 4-H clubs, and for 86 years, young people wearing blue corduroy jackets have developed leadership skills through FFA.
A number of the leaders featured by Agri-Pulse got their start though these youth organizations – an indication, perhaps, that it’s never too soon to plant the seed of leadership.
Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant contributed to this article.
Read earlier articles in our “Packing political punch in rural America” series:
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