Commentary: Do more to keep kids in ag

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A friend’s son wants to be a dairy farmer when he grows up. His sister wants to be a large-animal veterinarian — and own a dairy farm. These hard-working teens are determined to buck the odds and follow a path less-traveled than their classmates, despite laughter from peers whenever these kids declare their plans in public.

Yet, with the right encouragement, support and opportunities, I’m confident these two will be next-generation agriculturists if that’s what they ultimately decide to do. And their chosen industry and community will be better for it.

But as a whole, we’ve not done a great job of recruiting new people to our industry. I’d say things have improved significantly since I was in high school and my contemporaries and I were strongly encouraged to stay as far away from ag as possible. (Obviously, I didn’t listen, but a lot of others did.)

However, attitudes haven’t changed quite enough if we’re going to keep ag a dynamic, vibrant career opportunity.

A conference in Wausau, Wis. this week highlighted the need to bring qualified workers into the state’s $59 billion ag industry.

A report in the Wausau Daily Herald noted that leaders were told that they need to kill the negative image that’s keeping young people from entering the field.

“During a panel discussion Wednesday at a conference about economic development in rural Wisconsin, educators, business leaders and economists highlighted a grim reality: Wisconsin's top industry is struggling and will continue to struggle to find qualified workers.

Much of that concern stems from young people's misperceptions that jobs in agriculture, including food processing, are all low-paying, require no education and equate to long hours on a farm.

The panelists said that couldn't be further from the truth,” according to the report.

"The jobs are there," said Lori Weyers, president of Northcentral Technical College in Wausau and a proponent for drawing students into agriculture work. "We can't get the people interested in the careers."

What a disheartening statement, especially in light of the country’s stubborn unemployment rate and a still-sputtering economy. We have the perfect chance to highlight the many benefits that can be found working in agriculture, yet the message hasn’t been received. Or maybe it hasn’t been sent.

"There are all kinds of opportunities in agriculture; you just have to show kids they exist," says Mark MacPhail, agriculture director for McCain Foods, an international company that makes french fries and other potato products.

So the next time you hear a kid express an interest in agriculture, don’t discourage them. Or tell people searching for the next step in their career path about the thousands of interesting and varied jobs ag offers. Help them find their niche — whether it’s on a farm or in agribusiness, high-tech or not. Agriculture is too important to outsource because we can’t find people to do the job here.  



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Bob Milligan    
St. Paul, MN  |  October, 28, 2011 at 09:13 AM

I have the following suggestion for what we in agriculture can do to promote continuing change in this image: 1. Stop arguing that we can not afford to pay workers and thus require special legislation. 2. Stop promoting the image that we are poor and require special legislation to support our industry. 3. Stop portraying the image that agriculture is low pay, hard work and and long hours. 4. Stop saying "no one will work in our jobs" and start creating business cultures, positions and working conditions that attract workers. We need to stop all of these because each of them sends the message that jobs in agriculture are undesirable and together they create that image among most citizens.

Matt    
Franklin, CT  |  October, 28, 2011 at 10:37 AM

I have to agree with the above comment, we as the entire production agriculture industry need to improve our image and not be constantly telling the government that we are poor and strive to bring more income out of the marketplace. By either diversfying our farms our by improving our methods. I am under 30 years old and have tried many times to convince friends and associates who are unemployed or under employed in the area to rent fallow land and start farming but they are not willing to take the risk because they have seen to many farms go broke in the past twenty years. I am currently trying to have the FFA/voag chapter the area try to take kids who dont have SAE (surprivesed ag experiences) and have them rent fallow land or start logging but no interest has come of it. If we do not convince todays youth to jump off and take risks then agriculture will continue to become more and more conslidated which is not healthy as an industry. the changes we have to make are for educators in youth ag programs to convince youth to rent abandoned barns and fallow land to try to make a go of it, and to highlite producers on many different sizes of farming operations on how they are staying in business.

Matt    
Franklin, CT  |  October, 28, 2011 at 10:37 AM

I have to agree with the above comment, we as the entire production agriculture industry need to improve our image and not be constantly telling the government that we are poor and strive to bring more income out of the marketplace. By either diversfying our farms our by improving our methods. I am under 30 years old and have tried many times to convince friends and associates who are unemployed or under employed in the area to rent fallow land and start farming but they are not willing to take the risk because they have seen to many farms go broke in the past twenty years. I am currently trying to have the FFA/voag chapter the area try to take kids who dont have SAE (surprivesed ag experiences) and have them rent fallow land or start logging but no interest has come of it. If we do not convince todays youth to jump off and take risks then agriculture will continue to become more and more conslidated which is not healthy as an industry. the changes we have to make are for educators in youth ag programs to convince youth to rent abandoned barns and fallow land to try to make a go of it, and to highlite producers on many different sizes of farming operations on how they are staying in business.

Philip Lewis    
Salem, NY  |  October, 28, 2011 at 04:32 PM

Much of dairy farming's "bad press" and "negative image" is exacerbated by the dairy industry, at least some elements of the industry. Many dairy facilities look nothing like the "place" where young, intelligent Americans want to find a career ... dirty, disheveled, dangerous ... populated by poorly paid non-English speaking people ... long hours ... monotony ... repetition. How does a producer work to change the image? I most certainly cannot answer the question ... but, the problem must be resolved in order to attract quality youth. There are farms that succeed, look attractive, are managed responsibly, provide career paths ... just not enough of them. The good farms need to publicize their success and positivity ... the evil farms need to hide in obscurity. Dairy farming is not the only industry with an "image problem" ... and, the problem must be solved directly by the operator. If you want to be a slob ... you're going to attract the "lowest common denominator" in personnel. Improve your management and facility and the quality of personnel banging on your door will improve. It's not the industry ... it's the management.

Nate Wilson    
Sinclairville, N.Y.  |  October, 28, 2011 at 07:59 PM

Get a grip, guys! The question here shouldn't be why don't young folks want to farm: if you take a bite out of a reality apple and refocus, the question should be why would any sane, forward thinking, intelligent young person ever think of a farming career? Phil, I've read too many of your lucide comments to think you're not just having a bad day when you state, "Its not the industry... its the management." Of course its the industry! No amount of management can manage around a rigged pricing system that allows the processors to set their own fire-sale farm milk prices on the CME! Matt ???, News flash, lad! Production agriculture doesn't need to tell government its in the crapper; they already worked that out, oh say, 'bout 40 years ago. Ask yourself why an ag educator would want to make a lifelong enemy out of a kid by actually encouraging him to go into an occupation that near guarentees second-class citizenship? Bob, where the hell are you coming from? "Stop portraying... agriculture is low pay, hard work,and long hours." What are you saying; blatantly lie to young people about the realities of U.S. farming? I spent 40 years dairy farming, patiently making whatever pathetic improvements I could steal out of my milk check, farming smarter, leaner, meaner, tractors 40/50 years old that I could fix after dark and get back into the field the next morning... always hanging on, hoping next year would be better; and my reward? I'm 64 years old, broken health, drawing less than $350/month off my S.S.! Hell of a show, that! This country deserves to starve for the way it treats its farmers. If it does, it'll be a self-inflicted wound triggered by starving its farmers...

Eric Perkins    
Stroh, IN  |  October, 29, 2011 at 03:19 PM

Maybe we need to rethink our education tactics. We are focus on educating our kids, maybe we need to shift the focus to educate our aging farmer population that have no children following in their tracks. Wouldn't it be great to see a 50 something farmer take a young ambitious kid and work them into the operation. Our area has it's share of guys who are not too farm from retirement and we have many just graduated kids with interest, we just need to get them together.


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