Though the 2017 Census of Agriculture released this spring showed young farmers making some gains, the average age of an American farmer continues to rise.

Attracting young people to the field is critically important, experts say, particularly in a state like Virginia, where agriculture is the number one industry.

Virginia Western Community College is working to do just that with the launch of its agriculture associate degree program this fall. It’s an issue close to the heart of Amy White, dean of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. White grew up on a farm in Botetourt County.

Her children, who are both pursuing agriculture degrees, are the sixth generation to work the land. The farm, which is primarily a beef cattle operation, is still in operation today. It’s run by White’s father and uncle.

“They’re some of the old farmers that fall into the statistics,” she said.

Nationally, the average age of all producers is 57.5 and the average age of primary producers is 59.4. In Virginia, the numbers skew slightly higher. The average age of all producers is 58.5 and the average age of primary producers is 60.7, according to the census data.

Sophie Ackoff, vice president of policy and campaigns at the National Young Farmers Coalition, said it was not surprising to see these numbers continue to climb. And although there was a modest increase in farmers younger than 35, she said, they are still greatly outnumbered by those over 65.

“We’re just not adding enough young people in farming to make up for the aging of the industry,” Ackoff said.

New and beginning producers, another demographic group analyzed in the Census of Agriculture, aren’t necessarily young. The average age of a new and beginning producer is 46.3, whereas the census defines young farmers as under 35.

While it’s great to see new farmers of any age, adding older ones doesn’t help reverse these trends, said Ron Saacke, young farmers coordinator with Virginia Farm Bureau.

“Equipping younger folks with the right business and other career-based background so that they can do a better job of starting their farm operation with limited resources is really a key to that,” he said.

Someone entering the industry in their late 40s or early 50s may only actively farm for another 10 to 15 years, Saacke said. Aspiring farmers in their 20s have their whole careers ahead of them.

“If you’re going to turn around the agriculture industry and make sure we’ve got the next generation of farmers out there, we need to be looking further down the road,” Saacke said.

One of the biggest hurdles for young people who want to pursue careers in farming is student debt, Ackoff said. It might be hard to make student loan payments on a farmer’s income or to access additional credit.

Agriculture programs at land grant universities are often accompanied by hefty price tags, Ackoff said. A 2017 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition identified student loans as the second largest barrier to getting into farming; access to land was the first.

“A program at a community college that offers this farm education without a huge student loan burden is a great way to set up these young people to get an education but also be able to afford to farm,” Ackoff said.

Training programs are also essential to ensuring successors are in place for farmers retiring or aging out of the business, Ackoff said. Virginia Western’s program will help with that.

Although some outside the industry might be surprised to learn many farmers pursue higher education, Saacke said he thinks some level of college is essential. It’s a complex industry, and there’s much to learn on the business side.

It makes having affordable options all the more important, especially for young farmers just trying to get an operation off the ground.

“If you’re looking at limited resources the last thing you want to do is graduate college with a whole lot of debt on your hands.”

Helping these students become successful is good for agriculture , Saacke said. Perhaps the students who enroll in programs like Virginia Western’s will be the ones to find solutions to the industry’s challenges.

White, the Virginia Western dean, said the community college hopes to accomplish two things with this program: help people become better agriculturalists and bring people into the field who didn’t think they could make a career in agriculture.

“Agriculture is Virginia’s number one industry. If that fails and we let it fail and we stand idly by while it does fail, we only have ourselves to blame,” White said. “We need to feed the population. So we feel like we’re offering tools to help farmers make a go of it.”

Given the prevalence of agriculture in the Roanoke Valley, it might come as a surprise that Virginia Western didn’t already have an agriculture program. When White pitched the idea, she said most people asked why it hadn’t already been done.

White was inspired by the opportunities presented to her children through high school programs like the National FFA Organization and 4-H Club. It prompted her to talk with Virginia Western faculty members about extending those opportunities to students at the next level.

The college already had a forester and animal scientist on its faculty, White said, so starting an agriculture program wasn’t much of a leap.

The program was designed to be flexible, White said, providing pathways for students who plan to head straight to the farm after earning an associate degree and also those who plan to transfer in pursuit of a four-year degree. Students enrolled in the program could go on to be farmers, but also extension agents or veterinarians.

Course offerings include everything from business classes designed to help farmers manage their finances to a welding class that would provide on-farm skills and an opportunity to supplement income.

The courses will show students the role technology has come to play in agriculture. The industry is more sophisticated than some may realize — “it’s not plows and cows,” White said. She provides robotics in dairy farming and precision agriculture as examples. Students will take field trips to local farms to see such technology in action.

About a dozen students have enrolled in the program so far, White said, though that number could increase before the fall semester kicks off in August.

White has two hopes for the program. The first is offering students an affordable route to pursue these careers. The second is keeping local farms alive.

“I truly hope that it will allow people in the area to become profitable enough doing agriculture that they don’t have to sell their family farms,” White said.

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County.

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