Family farm erosion: Where are the young farmers? - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Family farm erosion: Where are the young farmers?

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ROCHESTER / ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) -- Farmers have been feeding our world and laboring our land since the beginning of time, but now there is a question of who those farmers will be in the future, as the number of young farmers continues to dip.

It has everyone from the farmer next door, to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture beckoning young farmers to enter the industry as their numbers dwindle in comparison to the staggering numbers of older farmers close to retirement.

"I grew up on the farm and it's what I've always known," said Kevin Borst, a young 20-something working on his family's farm. "I don't know, I can't imagine working for somebody else, doing something different."

Borst wakes up every morning, climbs into his trusted tractor, and rolls through the stretches of golden corn crop that his family has been farming for generations on southeastern Minnesota soil. However, Borst is a rare kind these days, working hand in hand with Mother Nature right out of college.

"Some people take jobs for a few years and then they plan on coming back to the farm," said Borst. That's the case of 32-year-old Andy Sheehan, who worked for several years in public relations and is now back on his family's farm in southeast Rochester.

"Your mind, especially when you're working off the farm, there's always that pull to come back," said Sheehan, who is also an anomaly in today's world of disappearing young farmers.

"It's largely different," Sheehan said of today compared to 20 years ago. "I mean there's a lot, it's probably even been down 75 percent." It is a trend that has caught experts' attention.

"You look at the bulk of the population of the farmers and they're not over 40, the bulk of them are over 50 and you have quite a large group that are over 60," said Lisa Behnken, a University of Minnesota Extension educator.

According to the 2012 USDA Census, 62 percent of the nation's farmers are over the age of 55, with only six percent under the age of 35.

"It's very difficult to encourage and get young folks into farming, and the stats prove it," said Behnken.

That same problem is mirrored in Minnesota. "So there is truly a concern," said Behnken. "Who is going to farm the land? Who is going to raise the food for you and me?"

Dr. Mike Boland at the University of Minnesota is one of many people attempting to answer why young farmers seem to be disappearing. Spiraling costs of starting a farm play a big role. To put it in perspective, one dairy cow can cost more than $2,000 each, but expenses don't stop there.

"The costs of land, the entry costs of farming, the agriculture, the machinery and things are just real, real expensive," said Boland.

"There was a time where we'd say, 'well your house you live in, you know, buys maybe a tractor,'" Behnken added. "Well, maybe four of your houses might buy that combine or that tractor."

Costs can be devastating to those just entering the industry, without roots in farming.

"Going to the banker and saying, 'I'm 22-years-old and I want to buy a farm.' Lay out your cash flow," said Behnken. "You're not going to get it."

"Is it possible? Sure," said Sheehan. "Does it help that my family and other generations have kind of set it up for me to succeed? Yeah, it helps."

Another factor holding potential aspiring farmers back is the challenging, round-the-clock lifestyle.

"Unpredictability with the markets and the weather and the longer hours," said Borst.

"There's an intense seasonality in the spring and fall, and some people can deal with that stress and some can't," Boland said of the challenges.

It poses the question, how do we bring young farmers back into the picture of agriculture? It could start with the generations past.

"For people who want to live in a rural community, there are tremendous opportunities," said Boland. "There's jobs, there's employment, there's lifestyle. Those jobs aren't going away."

"There are farmers that do want to hire and do want to teach, train, because they know that they're getting older and they wonder who's going to take over that land," explained Behnken, who adds there are many programs through the extension that connect interested students with farmers for experience.

Now it seems this current generation is taking the challenge to change.

"It's our opportunity, and duty and obligation kind of to maintain that and pass that on to the next generation," said Sheehan. "I think that's kind of what drives me the most."

A major resource is coming up for those interested in farming. The Minnesota Farmers Union Next Step Program for young men and women ages 18-25, will be hosted Saturday and Sunday at the Ramada Plaza in Minneapolis. The program gives young adults the opportunity to speak with farmers and network with those in the agricultural field.
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