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Interest in agriculture is growing — but equipment and land costs make becoming a farmer hard

Winnebago High School students braved a spring snowstorm to take part in "Drive Your Tractor to School Day." They are (from left to right) Josh Cowman, Matthew Stahl, Mason Heslop, Jason Gates and Madi Palm-Graceffa.
Peter Medlin
/
Harvest Public Media
Winnebago High School students braved a spring snowstorm to take part in "Drive Your Tractor to School Day." They are (from left to right) Josh Cowman, Matthew Stahl, Mason Heslop, Jason Gates and Madi Palm-Graceffa.

Student membership in the agriculture organization FFA is at an all-time high, yet the average age of farmers is rising and there are fewer farms in the U.S. than ever before. What do these shifting populations say about the future of agriculture?

A spring snowstorm didn’t stop Madi Palm-Graceffa from taking part in “Drive Your Tractor to School Day.”

“We always bring the biggest tractor that we have on the farm,” she said, while driving a giant 485-horsepower tractor through swirling snow.

The last blast of winter meant only a handful of tractors made the trek to Winnebago High School in northern Illinois for the annual event. Despite the snow, Madi said she’s much more comfortable than she was four years ago as a freshman.

A caravan of tractors make their way to Winnebago High School on March 22, as part of the annual "Drive Your Tractor to School Day." While the National FFA Organization hit the one million mark last year, a record, the number of farms in the U.S. is declining.
Courtesy Winnebago High School
A caravan of tractors make their way to Winnebago High School on March 22, as part of the annual "Drive Your Tractor to School Day." While the National FFA Organization hit the one million mark last year, a record, the number of farms in the U.S. is declining.

“I was so scared because, on that road back there, there are mailboxes and people are driving past,” she said. “But I've gotten better. I've never hit anything!”

For just as many years, Madi has been advocating for getting a chapter of the student agriculture organization FFA at the small school, but she said their school isn’t big enough to house a program. Still, other Winnebago students do want to pursue agriculture.

“I’d definitely like to be a farmer, like a lot of my family,” said Mason Heslop, a junior who drove his cousin’s tractor to the school.

Student interest in agriculture is growing, even as the number of farms in the United States are shrinking.

Last year the National FFA Organization announced a new record membership – almost one million students. The organization boasts more than 9,000 local chapters in all 50 states. Yet the most recent agriculture census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the country lost 140,000 farms over a five-year-period, bringing the total number to just under two million farms.

Brad Summa is the director of the Heartland Regional Field Office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service — the agency that produces the census of ag every five years.

“If I had to sum up the census in one word, it would be consolidation,” he said. “We're seeing fewer farms, we're seeing the average size of farms go up. We're seeing smaller farms slowly dwindling and being bought up and incorporated into larger farms.”

Not just farming

The FFA’s members aren’t all interested in becoming farmers, according to the national organization’s communications manager, Kristy Meyer. She said there are more than 350 careers in ag, including everything from sales to biotech to aviation, of a sort.

“There's a lot of technology,” she said. “We've had a lot of people talk about getting involved with drones, how that applies to agriculture, and how they use it on farms.”

And the group isn’t just for rural students. Meyer said FFA has chapters in 23 of the 25 largest U.S. cities, including a new chapter in Washington, D.C., and successful chapters in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Some urban chapters have rooftop gardens and greenhouses to grow food for their school. In other places they focus more on agri-science or even aquaculture.

“They’re raising sealife like tilapia,” Meyer said, “and then also making sure that the waterways around you are safe, as well. We have a chapter who works on the Chesapeake Bay to make sure that that water is staying healthy.”

As for students who do want to farm, FFA provides plenty of programs.

Students can do Supervised Agricultural Experience projects where they learn how to raise crops or animals. They can also work with students who already have a family farm, including through their New Century Farmer program.

“We talk about succession planning and what that looks like. How can you stay on the farm? How can you be that producer?” Meyer said. “We tap into FFA alumni and try to connect them, so they can help be that support system for those who are staying on the farm.”

 Two members at the National FFA Convention & Expo in 2022 in Indianapolis. FFA hit the one million member mark last year for the first time.
National FFA Organization
Two members at the National FFA Convention & Expo in 2022 in Indianapolis. FFA hit the one million member mark last year for the first time.

Hurdles for new farmers

According to the latest USDA ag census, the average age of farmers has increased to 58 years old.

But the number of new and beginning farmers also is increasing. Now, one million of the 3.4 million farmers in the U.S. are “beginning” farmers, meaning they have 10 or fewer years of experience.

While that’s good news, none of the top 10 states with the highest percentage of new farmers are in the Midwest.

That’s in part because 75% of ag-dedicated land in the Midwest is covered by corn and soybeans, said Mark Schleusener, the Illinois state statistician with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“Corn and soybean farming in the Midwest, where the land is highly productive, is a very expensive proposition,” he said. “It's a low-margin business. You don't make a lot of money on each bushel of corn you sell. So, you want to sell a whole lot of bushels.”

It also has a bit to do with those big tractors Winnebago High School students were driving. In 2023, the average price of a new row crop tractor was nearly a half of a million dollars.

“Think of the value of your house. A mid-sized, corn and soybean production would probably have several pieces of equipment, each of them valued at more than your house is valued, and the most expensive one could be twice the value of your house,” said Schleusener.

Meanwhile, farmland across the Midwest is being sold for record highs. Last year in Missouri, a farm sold for close to$35,000 per acre – a new national record. Finding affordable land is the top challenge for young farmers, according to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey.

Those costs are a major barrier to entry for potential new farmers.

Finding affordable land is the top challenge for young farmers, according to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey.
Luke Runyon
/
Harvest Public Media
Finding affordable land is the top challenge for young farmers, according to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey.

Cait Caughey is the senior beginning farmer and market associate at the Center for Rural Affairs, where she develops ag curriculum.

She’s also a first-generation farmer who’s renting land in southwest Iowa. Caughey grew up in the city with a passion for environmentalism. She fell in love with farming while she was learning about food and climate in college.

“I was a young activist educating myself about why clean soil and water is important, and why we need to be on the frontlines fighting for those things. Farming felt like something tangible,” she said.

She sees a lot of other younger people coming into farming because they want to tackle real-world problems like racism, food sovereignty and climate change.

“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,” she said.

Caughey said it’s even tougher to get access to affordable land for Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color.

As farmers grow older, hundreds of millions of acres are expected to exchange hands over the next couple of decades.

“The ag community is well aware of the fact that the age of farmers keeps on increasing,” said Schleusener. That's been a known fact for a while. I think there's been a push to reach out to younger people to make sure they are aware of what farming and the agricultural industry is all about.”

From Caughey’s perspective, it’s time to think outside the traditional model of a family farm with just one farmer.

“We don't have to continue thinking in this model of maintaining the family farm specifically with one operator or one family operator,” she said. “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 can’t be developed.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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