LANSING - Contrary to job outlooks for some other industries, optimism continues to swell among Michigan young farmers about their career path.

That's according to about 265 Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) members between the ages of 18 and 35 who participated in an informal survey at MFB's Young Farmer Leaders Conference in February. Although non-scientific, the annual survey is a general gauge of young farmers' opinions and habits on a broad range of issues, including their present outlook on farming.

The 2011 survey reveals that 89 percent of respondents said they are more optimistic about farming than they were five years ago. That's up from 80 percent last year. Similarly, 93 percent of this year's respondents said they are better off compared to five years ago. Last year, 86 percent shared the sentiment.

Also on a positive note, 95 percent of the young farmers surveyed see themselves as life-long farmers, and 96 percent would like their children to follow in their footsteps. As for the latter, 91 percent of the respondents see a bright future for their offspring, saying they think their children will be able to farm if they choose.

According to Lori Chamberlain, manager of the MFB Young Farmer Department, young farmers' steadfast devotion to their agricultural heritage tends to be a common thread from year to year.

"Over the last few years, no less than 90 percent of the young farmers surveyed have said they consider themselves lifelong farmers and would like their children to carry on their agricultural legacy. That's pretty impressive in today's job market. I'm not sure how many other industries can say the same," said Chamberlain.

But the picture is not entirely rosy, said Chamberlain. Young farmers still face unique hurdles.

In identifying their top challenges from 12 potential answers, Michigan young farmers said profitability/economic challenges, securing adequate acreage and government regulations are at the forefront.

Despite these obstacles, young farmers are committed to environmental stewardship, with 89 percent saying that balancing environmental and economic concerns is important on their farms.

Respondents were also asked to identify steps the federal government should take to help young farmers. From a menu of 12 possible answers, young farmers said cutting federal spending, financial help for beginning farmers and boosting U.S. agricultural exports and trade take precedence.

When it comes to the general public's perception of farmers, the group is divided. Forty-five percent believe the general public views farmers positively; 31 percent say the perception is negative; and 24 percent believe the public does not think about farmers at all. Either way, 63 percent of the young farmers surveyed said communicating with consumers is a formal part of their job.

These Generation X and Y farmers are also technologically savvy, with the majority of respondents using a variety of communications gadgets from personal computers and smart phones to personal Web pages.

Their utilization of the Internet is extensive, but some of the more common uses, as identified by the survey, include researching product information to make buying decisions at local retailers; banking and recordkeeping; communicating with legislators; making online purchases; social networking with Facebook; and commodity marketing and trading.

Survey traces young farmers' agricultural roots

Attendance at the MFB Young Farmer Leaders Conference has steadily grown over the years, especially among married couples, said Chamberlain. This trend may be a reason why 48 percent of the survey respondents attribute their start in farming to marriage. Of the remainder, 20 percent said they started in agriculture as a member of a family partnership; 19 percent started on their own; and 13 percent inherited a farm.

More than a quarter of the young farmers surveyed are single and said farming is their sole occupation. For those who are married, 24 percent said both spouses work off the farm; 19 percent said the wife does; 17 percent said neither spouse; and 12 percent said the husband does. Forty-nine percent indicated they supplement their income with other farm-based enterprises such as seed sales or trucking.

State results mirror national statistics
Results from MFB's state survey track closely with findings from the American Farm Bureau Federation's national survey of young farmers.

"Farming and ranching is a tough but rewarding way of life. One trait all farmers and ranchers share is optimism and hope for the future," said Leelanau County fruit grower Ben LaCross, of Cedar, who is chairman of the AFBF Young Farmer and Rancher Committee. "Whether you produce tree fruit or beef cattle, you have to be an optimist to succeed in farming and ranching these days."

Source: Michigan Farm Bureau