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Young Farmers, Ranchers Face Concerns but Express Optimism

March 17, 2010

Arizona YF&R team having a good time at the Leadership Conference this year in Tulsa.

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau

Maybe the older generation is passing down one of agriculture’s most important traits. Optimism appears as high or, maybe in some cases, higher in the young crop of American farmers and ranchers as it has in earlier generations. 80 percent of participants responding to American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) 18th annual survey of young farmers and ranchers say they are more optimistic than they were five years ago, while 82 percent say they are better off than they were five years ago.

But they’re not wearing rose-colored glasses either. Young farmers and ranchers do see the challenges. Profitability, increasing government regulations and the impact of activist groups are the top concerns of America’s leading young farmers and ranchers.

“Last year was a tough year economically for many sectors of agriculture,” said AFBF YF&R Committee Chair Will Gilmer, a dairy farmer from Lamar County, Alabama. “But despite the challenges, the survey shows young farmers and ranchers are optimistic and hopeful. We expect a bright future ahead.”

“Optimism is a result of being able to influence our future, through proactively educating consumers and regulators about how we produce safe food in an environmentally sustainable way,” explains Arizona Farm Bureau (AZFB) YF&R Chair Marguerite Tan.

Specifically on the regulatory front, the informal survey shows young farmers and ranchers have a high level of apprehension about government climate change regulations, with 79 percent of those surveyed expressing high or very high concern.

That’s why in Arizona, young farmers and ranchers participated right along with the older generations in the “Don’t Cap Our Future” campaign that was a concerted grassroots effort to let Congress know that American agriculture does not believe Cap and trade legislation will be a good thing for the industry and ultimately the consumer.

It’s also why agriculturalists like to highlight they’re already engaging in self-regulation in certain areas because it simply makes sense. “Although agriculture faces increasing regulation, we will rise to the challenge through innovation,” adds Tan, environmental manager for Farmer John in Snowflake, Arizona. “Consumers want added confidence that producers are good environmental stewards.  Often times, producers are already employing production practices that the new regulations would require. Every day is earth day on the farm. In fact, if we do not operate in an environmentally sustainable way, we have no livelihood. We have the ability to influence how we are regulated, and have started taking advantage of that opportunity.”

A huge majority of those surveyed expressed concern about the impact of activist groups on their farm and ranch operations. A total of 85 percent were concerned or very concerned about activist groups. Only 7 percent expressed little or no concern.

“Activist groups are becoming more and more vocal, so that is something we always have to keep our eyes on,” Gilmer said. “There is also a great deal of concern about all the ways the government wants to regulate us, whether it’s cap-and-trade or different Environmental Protection Agency rules.”

Respondents were asked to rank their top three challenges, and 24 percent ranked overall profitability as the top, followed by government regulations at 23 percent. Two other concerns tied for third on that list, with competition from more established farms and ranches, and willingness of parents to share management responsibilities each receiving 9 percent.

And when it comes to what steps the federal government can take to help farmers and ranchers, 23 percent ranked cut federal spending as number one. Boosting U.S. agricultural exports ranked second, selected by 14 percent of respondents. Providing greater help to beginning farmers was third at 11 percent.

Young farmers and ranchers are also committed environmental stewards, with 68 percent saying that balancing environmental and economic concerns is important for their operations. The survey says 58 percent used conservation tillage on their farms.

In Arizona, conservation practices are found in almost every type of agriculture today including ranchlands through improved technology developed by their own industries to conserve water, curb soil erosion, actively manage wildlife habitat, filter water, plant trees, and manage fisheries.

The majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, plan to plant biotech crops this year, while 43 percent said they do not plan to do so.

The survey also shows the Internet is an important tool for young farmers and ranchers. Nearly 99 percent said they have access to and use the Internet, with the vast majority, 72 percent, saying they have access to a high-speed Internet connection. Only 20 percent rely on slower dial-up connections and 8 percent turn to more costly satellite connections.

The social media site Facebook is very popular with young farmers and ranchers. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed have a Facebook page. Ten percent of the young farmers say they use the micro-blogging Web site Twitter, while about 12 percent say they post YouTube videos.

Communicating with consumers is also important, with 77 percent saying they consider reaching out to the public about agriculture and their operations an important part of their jobs as farmers and ranchers.

Jon Dinsmore, Arizona produce grower and Yuma County Farm Bureau Chair for YF&R is “absolutely” in agreement that young farmers and ranchers must do even more to reach out through social media. “I think it’s important,” he says. “As farmers and ranchers, we have a niche we can fill by using these tools in order to bring awareness whether the issue is food safety or some other top issue in agriculture.”

A Facebook user, Dinsmore hopes to become a more active participant with social media.  “I’m excited about the launch of Arizona Farm Bureau’s YF&R Facebook page and plan to make use of it.”

Adds Tan, “Agriculture is becoming more proactive in telling our story, a turn from the past where we were constantly reacting to others telling their version of our story. We are using social media to educate consumers about where their food comes from and the underlying agendas that many activist groups have. We are creating transparency in our production practices, dispelling myths of the unknown black box that agriculture has historically been. We are also putting a face on the industry.  It’s a person who cares about producing consumers’ food, not a scary robot or machine. Agriculture has started to educate consumers about what we do to protect the environment and ensure food safety.”

In addition, the Internet is an important tool for the group to access both general and farm news, with 84 percent saying they use the Web for that function. Seventy-two percent said they turn to the Internet to collect buying information for their operations.

The survey also reveals the group’s strong commitment to agriculture, with 96 percent saying they consider themselves life-long farmers or ranchers. They also express hope for the next generation, with 98 percent saying they would like to see their children follow in their footsteps; 85 percent believe their children will be able to follow in their footsteps.

“Young farmers and ranchers share the same traditional hopes and values that have always guided agriculture,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “This survey shows that the future of American agriculture is in caring and capable hands.”

The informal survey of young farmers and ranchers, ages 18-35, was conducted during AFBF’s 2010 YF&R Leadership Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma this month. There were 373 respondents to the informal survey.

Editor’s Note: Arizona farmers and ranchers ages 18 to 35 are encouraged to join Arizona Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer & Rancher program. For further information contact program coordinator Bonnie Jones at 480.635.3615. The program focuses on leadership development in addition to activities that support agriculture and the community-at-large.

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