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More young people are getting into farming and agriculture

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The average age of farmers in the U.S. continues to rise. It's now nearly 60 years old. That's according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture census. But there is also an increase in the number of new farmers. Student membership in the agriculture organization FFA is at an all-time high. Harvest Public Media contributor Peter Medlin reports on what those shifts mean for the future of agriculture.

LAYLA HUFSTEDLER: This is from the plant science class.

PETER MEDLIN, BYLINE: On this day, a group of second graders is attending Ag Day at Somonauk High School in rural northern Illinois. They're putting on necklaces that include a small plastic bag with the seed of a pea nestled inside. The kids will be able to watch the seed germinate and sprout.

HUFSTEDLER: Once they sprout, they can just plant them in a pot and it'll turn into a plant, and they can get beans from it.

MEDLIN: That's Layla Hufstedler. She's a junior at Somonauk and an officer of its FFA chapter. The high schoolers work with local elementary school students to grow an interest in ag. There are farm-to-fork stations explaining food production, animals from family farms.

HUFSTEDLER: A quarter horse, a mule and then a heifer cow over there.

MEDLIN: And there's equipment like the FFA chapter's tractor, which they use at the pumpkin plot students farm every year. And like many FFA members, Layla did not grow up on a farm connected to agriculture.

HUFSTEDLER: But I was able to find it through FFA and I really love it. So I'm planning on studying agronomy or plant science.

MEDLIN: Student interest in agriculture is growing. FFA, which used to be known as Future Farmers of America, announced a new record membership last year, almost a million students. And in many states, every student taking an ag class can become a member. Kristy Meyer is communications manager for the group, and she says not all FFA members want to be farmers. Meyer says there are ag careers in everything from sales to drone technology, to agronomy. And the group isn't just for rural students.

KRISTY MEYER: We're in 23 of the 25 largest cities. So we have a really successful chapter in Chicago. We have a newer chapter in Washington, D.C.

MEDLIN: Some chapters grow food for their school and others focus on local waterway quality. The latest USDA ag census shows the number of new and beginning farmers is increasing in states as varied as Rhode Island, Alaska and Colorado. And yet of the top 10 states with the highest percentage of new farmers, none are in the Midwest, which the USDA calls one of the most intense areas of ag production in the world. Mark Schleusener has a few ideas why. He's with the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. And he says 75% of ag-dedicated land in the Midwest is covered by corn and soybeans, which requires expensive equipment.

MARK SCHLEUSENER: Think of the value of your house. A mid-sized corn and soybean producer probably has several pieces of equipment, each of them valued at more than your house is valued.

MEDLIN: Those costs are a major barrier to entry for potential new farmers. Cait Caughey is a tenant farmer who also works with the Center for Rural Affairs, and part of her job is to help new farmers.

CAIT CAUGHEY: You're seeing urban youth and rural youth who are interested. They might want there to be a path for them to be involved in agriculture, but we are up against enormous issues when it comes to accessing land.

MEDLIN: In fact, finding affordable land is the top challenge for young farmers, according to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey. And the total number of farms continues to decline. That's due to consolidation as the average farm size keeps increasing and farmland across the country is being sold at record highs. Last year in Missouri, a farm sold for close to $35,000 per acre. Caughey says it's time to think outside of the traditional model of a family farm with just one farmer.

CAUGHEY: We could think of cooperative farms and collaborative farms. We could think of putting our land into a land trust and securing that land for generations so that it cannot be developed.

MEDLIN: As farmers grow older, hundreds of millions of acres are expected to exchange hands over the next couple decades. And while there are many potential new farmers, the big question is whether they'll have the chance to tend the land.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Medlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Medlin
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