Millennials in agriculture — Part 1

Millennials are expected to make farming more efficient and profitable by relying more on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Millennials represent a cohort of youth born between 1980 and mid-2000. Currently, there are 80 million of them in the U.S. They will make up 75 percent of the workforce in 2025. Growing up with social media, they are often labeled as the transparency generation.

In the farming industry, the generational transformation is beginning to take shape as more and more millennials are taking over family farms. It is estimated that 30-40 percent of millennials who grew up on the family farm helping their farming parents have some type of college education.

Millennials will impact the food industry as food producers as well as consumers. Part 1 of this article will address some of the opportunities and challenges millennials are facing as food producers. On one hand, the flexible working hours, independence, control and choices, and “me time” on the farm are attractive to millennials. Nonetheless, farming is still a physically taxing way of life.

While honoring family traditions, millennials will be motivated to find ways to make farming more efficient and profitable by relying more on technology and entrepreneurship. Automated equipment, tractors, drones and robotics will make farming less cumbersome. Millennials are more likely to partner with friends and neighbors to share the workload, equipment and storage.

The National Young Farmers Coalition Is lobbying for policies in the 2018 Farm Bill that will keep young farmers in business. Millennials need easier access to land, capital, student debt relief and affordable health care. Student debt interferes with their ability to secure additional credit and bank loans. Millennials will pay more attention to diversification and value added than acreage expansion. They are more apt to subscribe to community supported agriculture (CSA) and farm markets to sell their produce.

As communities become more diverse, there will be an increased demand for new ethnic food commodities. By 2050, 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. As both a social and practical imperative, it will make more sense to grow food near these cities. So, millennials will be looking at more urban farming opportunities. Institutional barriers for women and people of color to become farmers need to be addressed. Farmers and farmsteads will look different from the past.

Michigan State University Extension has a key role in providing educational resources to millennials. This needed information should be available online and through social media, if possible. YouTube tutorials are a preferred way to communicate with this audience. MSU Extension’s Beginning Farmer Webinar Series is a good starting point for millennials. Smart Vegetable Gardening Series will benefit horticulture enthusiasts.

High-quality internships and apprenticeships that teach hands-on skills will help millennials who have no background in farming. It is also critical to cultivate a productive mindset and patience to deal with stress and overwhelming situations. Beyond the uncertainties of weather, millennials will need to cope with irregular cash flow, destructive pests and unforeseen equipment failures.

Besides education, millennials are also inquiring about financial assistance. To this end, they should search online for a variety of federal and state assisted programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grants and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loans are available every year.

Given the opportunity, millennials have the potential for success in food production from the standpoint of entrepreneurship, innovation and technology adoption. Experts believe millennials are well poised to bridge the gap between complex issues, such as rural versus urban, conventional versus organic and local versus import, that are currently polarizing the production agriculture sector.

Highly educated and socially conscious young people are eternal optimists about their ability to combine family tradition with new technology, to sustainably feed the world with a safe and affordable food supply.

Part 2 will address the role of millennials as food consumers.

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