America faces a fundamental challenge in inspiring young agriculturalists, according to an article published by the Society for Range Management.
Though the article zeroes in on an aging demographic of rangeland owners in Wyoming the authors use a broad brush to paint a similar trend across all of American agriculture. In short, as those producing our food and fiber are getting older they are not being replaced.
The article points to a number of causes for the greying of American agriculture.
Whether it’s because the kids simply don’t want to farm like dad did, or because our culture pushes young people into overly-expensive colleges that then become a lifetime debt burden unable to be overcome by unpredictable and sometimes unprofitable margins common to agriculture, we are at a crucial cross-roads in this country.
Economic pressures that outweigh a herd of corn-fed steers under a tax code printed on a forest of paper are largely to blame. Any interested family member or group of siblings eager to assume the family farm is financially penalized through onerous taxes assessed when the folks pass on the farm.
Further pushing farmers to “sell out” in some areas is the rising cost of developer deals – land speculators who are in it to turn a quick buck and are able to convince farmers to take the money and bail.
In some areas tax code provisions have been passed to ease this burden. In California, for instance, Williamson Act provisions reduce tax liabilities on land kept in farming. Conservation easements provide similar relief, but it’s not enough to curb the exodus.
Some argue that American agriculture has become too commercialized and too corporate. That is one consequence of tax structures and policies that push unprofitable small farms to sell to those with the liquid assets to absorb it.
As this happens business models in agriculture begin to match those of large corporations; margins become mechanical decisions rather than human ones.
The USDA claims to have money in various programs aimed at helping young farmers keep what little they have and even try to expand. While that might sound good from a politician on the stump, it’s not enough to help every farmer out there as the average value of U.S. cropland reportedly rose 52 percent from 2010 to 2014.
These rising costs push growers into higher-value crops, which are few in number. This move to a monoculture might work for a fortunate few in the short term, but it can’t be good in the long term for American consumers as choices become fewer and poorer and the increased threat of tainted food from cheap, foreign sources continues to rise.
As world demand for food continues to increase with a growing population that is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the United States needs a firm agricultural policy that protects, preserves and promotes our ability to be agriculturally self-sufficient while continuing to seek markets for our agricultural exports.
From a national security standpoint there is little else more important to the United States than a solid agricultural policy that does everything it can to make domestic food production safe, efficient and affordable for producers and consumers alike.