(St. Charles, MO) – The stereotype of “Old Farmer Brown” in his overalls, cap and with some straw sticking out of his mouth does not describe the farmers of today.
Today’s farmer in Missouri and across the nation is tech savvy, using a GPS system to get maximum use of the land. He’s also business savvy, navigating international markets to sell his products.
He’s also a pseudo lawyer and accountant rolled into one; that’s a skill needed to understand the complex government regulations and incentive programs that are part of agriculture today.
A potential problem for agriculture and the entire nation is the fact that fewer young people are getting into farming as a career. In fact, the average farmer in America would be retired or close to it in most other industries.
While technology and improved equipment allow Missouri’s farmers to work more efficiently, the long term trend has some concerned.
Agriculture is one of the pillars of Missouri’s economy and impacts every person in the state. A smooth transition from one generation to the next is important to productivity.
“The number one issue probably there is just the cost of getting into farming. The price of farm land continues to escalate…and it’s not uncommon for an acre of row crop ground to [cost] $8,000 an acre. So, for every one hundred acres of crop ground, that’s $800,000 of investment.”
That’s not as much of a barrier when a father is handing down land to a son or daughter but it can be insurmountable for those who want to be a first generation farmer in 2013.
While the cost is going up, better technology and bioscience allows for greater productivity from farm land. According to Smith, that’s needed because demand for US-based agriculture continues to grow.
“One farmer used to feed about twenty people in the 1940’s and, today, one farmer feeds 154 people.”
Missouri, in agriculture terms, is generally a livestock state. While many vegetables and fruits are grown here, Show Me State farmers produce large amounts of beef, pork, poultry and eggs that are sold in grocery stores around the nation every day.
Smith believes farmers will continue to meet the need, even if there are fewer farmers. That may mean fewer farms that are larger than they are now because of a decreasing supply of farmers. That’s a mindset of necessity, not necessarily the ideal trend for the state or the nation.
Still, there’s more to agriculture than just working in the fields and that means there’s a need for today’s high school and college students to consider some sector of the industry, according to Steven Rogers.
“There may be two percent of our population that’s involved in production. [You may ask] how can that be our number one industry? Well, there are a lot more components to that.”
Rogers is with the Agriculture Education program of Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
While there are still concerns about the number of today’s students seriously looking at going in the fields tomorrow, Rogers says there is some positive news in recent years for agriculture.
“In ag education in the State of Missouri, we have about 26,700 students enrolled and that number has gone up steadily.”
Agriculture education is now available in over 330 high schools and just over half of those are at least considering an agriculture-based career or an agriculture-based higher education.
Many of those students are from current farm families but not all of them will stay in the family business. Rogers says, like everyone else, farmers’ kids consider the bottom line when picking a career to pursue.
“It has to be profitable, too…if we can find a way to continue to make agriculture production profitable, then we’ll continue to recruit students into the field.”
Profit isn’t the only motivation that appeals to today’s student generation. Rogers says there’s an altruistic appeal as well.
“We’ve got to feed all this population on this limited land. That’s a neat challenge. For a lot of our students, they relish that opportunity to figure out ‘how am I going to solve this problem of making this land profitable and productive in feeding the world’.”
Both Smith and Rogers agree that another aspect of farming needs to be put front and center: the farming lifestyle. In Missouri’s rural areas, farming remains the backbone of the community both economically and culturally.
While the reach of today’s farms is around the world instead of around the county and the technology to get the food from the farm has changed, the lifestyle that reared generations of Missourians still holds on to its roots in more ways than one.