The annual meeting of Practical Farmers of Iowa getting underway today (Friday) features a panel on the aging of Iowa’s farmers and how to help young ones get started in the business. Iowa State University ag economist MIke Duffy says the “Beginning Farmers” program at I-S-U helps with the cost of land and other considerations in handing off a farm from one generation to the next.
Duffy says the program helps farmers ready to retire find ways they can help beginning farmers without exposing themselves to financial risks, things like leases and other arrangements that’ll help new farmers get into the business. For young people looking at the career field, Duffy says they’ll need a plan to get into farming successfully. Look at what resources are available, consider their goals and figure out how to combine the resources into a package. That’s likely to be a modest beginning, as Duffy says the cost of land and equipment will rule out starting up with a big farm. “They’re not going to be able to farm the whole county,” Duffy says, explaining that using an old formula that relies on producing a big volume of commodities to get young people into farming won’t work for very many. He compares it to a game of musical chairs, with 20 people and two chairs. “We have two happy people and 18 unhappy if we go that way.”
For farmers being urged to find a different crop to grow or market to reach, Duffy says he understands the concern that leaving mainstream agriculture will be risky. There’s a variety of niches, he says, and if everyone tried the same thing, of course it would flood the market and not work — but they won’t all choose the same niche. He says there are options and alternatives, but it’s going to look different. Duffy says the niche markets are changing and might look a lot different in a couple years, a good reason not to invest a lot in machinery right now that will tie a farmer to one kind of crop and one kind of farming. Saturday’s keynote panel will culminate with Duffy’s presentation, and another panelist from Minnesota will talk about that state’s “Land Stewardship Project” and its programs for beginning farmers.