Zac Yoder is only 28 years old, but he has the kind of background that would impress any potential employer. He received a college degree in aeronautical science, and his first job out of school was at L3 Communications, a prestigious defense contractor. But, a few years into his new career, Zac decided that working in an office all day wasn't for him. He wanted something more challenging. So Zac returned home to work at his family's farm in Dalhart, Texas.
"I enjoyed the work [at L3 Communications], but I wanted to get outside more. I didn't really like having a boss," Zac admitted. "My dad had an employee who was leaving, so it seemed like the right time to come back."
Unfortunately, Zac's decision to go back to the farm is one that is becoming increasingly rare among young people, as many are leaving their rural upbringings behind in favor of careers in the city. In 2003, the USDA reported that the traditional pattern of "transfer of family-operated farm operations from parent to child has reportedly become less common as fewer farm children choose farm careers.
"A 2002 study indicates that the annual number of new farm entrants under age 35 declined from 39,300 during 1978-1982 to 15,500 during 1992-1997 (Gale 2002), a drop of more than 50 percent."
And the timing couldn't be worse. The United States, which was built upon its agriculture industry, boasted 6.8 million farms in 1935. Since then, the number of farms has steadily declined (today there are about 125,000 farms that produce 75% of the country's food and fiber) while world population growth and consequent demand for agricultural products has increased.
According to U.S. government data, there are nearly 310 million people living in the United States-and a mere 1% of those people claim farming as a full-time occupation. Of particular concern is that as the number of U.S. farmers has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise.
In fact, according to the USDA, the average age of today's farmer is 57 years old, and one-quarter of American farmers are 65 or older. As the U.S. farming population continues to age, it is more important than ever for young farmers like Zac to take their place.
In 2006, John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska told The New York Times' "Upfront" magazine that "Twenty-five years ago, there were 350,000 farmers and ranchers under the age of 35…now, there's only 70,000. We're not creating opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers to get into the business."
Crabtree's analysis is spot-on. Starting a career as a young farmer can be a risky undertaking with plenty of obstacles, as most young people lack the financial capital and strong credit needed to purchase land or receive loans.
Strong farm policy and crop insurance coverage is essential to a young farmer's ability to obtain capital and to handle the costs of farming today. Matt Huie, a young farmer from Beeville, Texas, said "We've had two incredibly bad years in a row...and without [crop insurance] nobody in south Texas under 50 would be farming."
The Cost of Starting a Farm
According to an MSNBC story, "soaring land values and operating costs, competition from large-scale operations, tax hurdles and market forces have made it difficult for young families to take over for the nation's graying farmers."
We're lucky that some young college graduates like Zac Yoder are bucking the current trend and choosing careers in farming, but it is clear that even more needs to be done to lure young, technologically and marketing-savvy young people back to the farm.