If political pundits continue to frame another farm bill debate by focusing only on farm subsidies, we will miss a golden opportunity to discuss broader farm policy. One issue that must not be lost in the deliberation is the way our country supports new farmers.
The last Census of Agriculture by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service highlighted the increase of the average age of the American farmer from 52 years old in 1987 to 57.1 years old in 2007. Even more troubling is the number of agricultural operators 75 years or older grew by 20 percent and operators 25 or younger decreased by 30 percent. The alarming trend of more farmers getting older and less young people choosing farming as a vocation needs to change.
A key indicator for the success of any industry is how it attracts young people. This is particularly important in agriculture where such a great responsibility is entrusted to a relatively small group of people.
To put this issue in perspective, there are only 3,337,450 farmers and ranchers, in a country of over 300 million people, managing over 900 million acres of land. Another way to look at this is that one percent of the U.S. population is the caretaker of 39 percent of America’s landscape.
If the agricultural industry is to continue to meet the needs of a growing world population, we must focus our attention on the people managing it. A new approach is needed to inspire young people and give them optimism for agriculture’s future. It must place an emphasis on improving the educational system that trains these entrepreneurs.
Fortunately, there is something to build on; every state has a significant high school agricultural education system staffed by passionate teachers. But, challenges remain as Agricultural Education programs are often seen as an attachment and not a central part of the school’s academic focus. Frankly, some of these programs are often mischaracterized as ‘the old vocational-agriculture program whose students don’t go to college.’
This portrayal of these dynamic programs could not be further from the truth. If everyone could witness what happens in Garden State schools we would see. For example, there is the contagious enthusiasm that Hans Toft, a Cape May Tech teacher, has on his students when instructing them about the ecosystem of a nearby coastal bay and forest, or the pride of Shelly Grinsphun, a student at Monmouth County’s Biotechnology High School, whose research project won top honors at the state and national levels and got her an invitation to visit President Obama.
Yet, an update is needed. Thanks to some visionaries who proposed a more vigorous curriculum and 10 states who boldly endorsed the concept by contributing $1 million, this transformational task is well underway. Now in its second year of implementation, Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education (CASE), is available in 90 schools and taught by 100 teachers in 18 states.
The development of this curriculum is a work in progress, with 3 courses already being taught, and ultimately the full curriculum of 8 courses is scheduled to be available by 2018. This vigorous curriculum provides students with a level of learning that meets National Academic and Agricultural Standards. Raising the rigor of agricultural science education programs creates a more seamless transition between high school and college.
Why is this so important? Today’s agriculture is a complex ever-changing business which requires a well-equipped people to manage it. A well-educated student makes a better farmer. Congress can help by authorizing funding that fast-tracks CASE curriculum development to quickly give the nation’s agriculture educators this important tool to instruct a new generation of farmers and agriculturalists.
Agricultural education improvements coupled with stronger mentoring and apprentice programs will significantly enhance the environment that welcomes young people to an industry that needs them. This effort will also instill confidence in potential lending partners when they consider investing in new operators
For young people to be attracted to the agricultural industry there must be the potential for profit, promise of growth and satisfaction of contributing to the well-being of humanity.
If U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas said ‘everything will be on the table’ when the Farm Bill debate begins, then now is the time to give agricultural education greater prominence in this legislation.
Charles Kuperus, a Sussex Borough farmer, served as NJ’s Secretary of Agriculture from 2001-2008. He’s on the Internet at CharlieKuperus.com.