Posted: November 30, 2023

Empowering the next generation of farmers

Photo: Peopleimages.com—Adobe Stock.com

Photo: Peopleimages.com—Adobe Stock.com

The average age of the American farmer is 57.5 years old, and more than a third of farmers are 65 and over, according to the most recent national agricultural census. As younger generations move off the farm and the average age of farmers continues to rise, the question looms: Who will tend to the country's farmland?

Pennsylvania's agriculture is diverse and valuable, encompassing more than 52,000 farms across 7.3 million acres, generating $81.5 billion annually, and supporting one in 10 jobs in Pennsylvania, according to the state's Department of Agriculture. Pennsylvania leads the nation in mushroom cultivation and ranks among the top-producing states for milk, apples, eggs and pumpkins. Pennsylvania's hardwood sector — the leading exporter of hardwood lumber in the U.S. — drives industries such as furniture and flooring.

Yet the aging farming community presents a challenge to producers and policymakers: How can we build the agricultural workforce of the future while sustaining and eventually increasing productivity?

Penn State Extension is seeking solutions to this issue, offering a wealth of education and resources to support new and beginning farmers. These programs cover financing, business operations, marketing, production techniques and other crucial topics. To maintain the state's production rankings and ensure a robust agricultural sector, extension experts emphasize the need to nurture the next generation of farmers.

Steering New Farmers Toward Success

The "Starting a Farm" extension team is a powerhouse of research-based knowledge and experience, guiding new and beginning farmers on their path to agricultural success. Team members come from diverse backgrounds in dairy, small fruits, livestock, vegetables and business marketing.

"We receive inquiries from new and beginning farmers across the state interested in starting various types of farms," said Megan Chawner, vegetable extension educator. "Having this group of experts allows us to address specific requests, such as someone wanting to start a chicken farm."

Lynn Kime, senior extension associate in agricultural economics, pointed to the range of individuals entering farming: "Some are fresh out of college with no farming experience, while others are in their early 60s who have inherited a farm but lack the knowledge to manage it effectively."

The team assists not only those starting from scratch but also established farmers seeking to diversify. This expansion often involves transitioning to new agricultural ventures or exploring agritourism and value-added activities.

Penn State Extension's Agricultural Alternatives series provides nascent farmers with a comprehensive resource for evaluating new farming enterprises. The series features 90 articles, including 21 in Spanish that cover production techniques, financial insights, business information and marketing strategies to equip farmers with tools for informed decision making.

Land acquisition often poses a challenge for new farmers. The team recommends Pennsylvania Farm Link, a database connecting aspiring farmers with available land. Extension educators also collaborate with incubator farms, which provide opportunities for new farmers to start small, learn essential skills and refine their marketing techniques.

"We emphasize starting small and gradually expanding your farm," Kime said. "Beginning with a half-acre plot or a few cows allows farmers to gain experience and confidence before venturing into larger-scale endeavors."

Sarah Cornelisse, senior extension associate in agricultural entrepreneurship and business management, underscored the importance of thorough planning, research, financial forecasting and market analysis. This crucial phase often is overlooked amidst the excitement of starting a farm.

Extension's Starting and Improving Farms Conference, recently held in State College, was designed for new and diversifying farmers, offering presentations, tours, exhibits, workshops and networking opportunities.

"We understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach," Kime said. "Our team consists of members with different specializations, providing tailored information and support to each farmer."

As baby-boom farmers age out of the workforce, Chawner emphasized the urgency to support new farmers: "By directing our efforts and resources toward nurturing and empowering new farmers, we aim to ensure the continuation of farming for future generations in Pennsylvania and beyond."

Fostering Diversity in Farming

Two-thirds of the Agaricus bisporus, or white button, mushrooms consumed in the U.S. come from Pennsylvania mushroom farms, according to a 2022 report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the 2021-2022 growing season, Pennsylvania farms led the nation with more than $459 million in sales of the fungus.

"Southeastern Pennsylvania has the nation's largest concentration of mushroom farms, which employ nearly 9,500 people," said Maria Gorgo, horticulture extension educator. She added that the mushroom farming community contributes an estimated $2.7 billion to the local economy.

In collaboration with Adrián Barragan, extension veterinarian and associate research professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, and Jaime García Prudencio, assistant teaching professor for the Spanish for Agriculture program, Gorgo leads Penn State's Latinx Agricultural Network, a group that seeks to enhance engagement and continue to provide support for Pennsylvania's Latino agricultural community.

According to Gorgo, Latinos make up 75% of the agricultural workforce in the U.S.; in the mushroom industry, it is as high as 90%.

"There is an increasing trend of Latinos moving from being employees to being managers and owners of agricultural enterprises, giving them increasing importance in agricultural policy," said Gorgo, who also serves on the "Starting a Farm" extension team.

According to the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census, the number of Hispanic operators in Pennsylvania increased by 24% from 2012, with 759 operators reported. "These operators and their families make essential contributions to the health and nourishment of Pennsylvanians through their work," Gorgo said.

The Latinx Agricultural Network has grown from nine to 120 members since it was established in 2019. This team of educators, students, faculty, administrators and grassroots advisers translates extension materials and offers in-person workshops and webinars in Spanish.

"Language barriers can pose significant challenges for minority farmers, particularly Latino farmers," Gorgo said. "It can be difficult for them to fully understand and utilize the resources and support available from USDA agencies. This creates additional obstacles for individuals who did not grow up in the U.S. and need to navigate the agricultural landscape."

She noted that employees from many sectors can benefit from Extension's bilingual produce safety education manuals, videos and other training resources.

In addition to translating materials for Spanish-speaking audiences, Penn State Extension is committed to serving other linguistically and culturally diverse communities. Extension offers free language access services to Pennsylvanians with limited English proficiency, including over-the-phone interpretation, in-person interpretation and translation.

Empowering Young Fruit Growers

The Young Grower Alliance, supported by the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania and Penn State Extension, is aimed at empowering and educating young fruit growers. Now in its 19th year, the coalition includes more than 380 growers. It offers tours, workshops and luncheons facilitated by industry experts.

The alliance creates a platform for young growers to learn and grow independently, explained Donald Seifrit, program coordinator and tree fruit extension educator. By fostering an environment in which peers can discuss challenges, the group offers a space for knowledge exchange without the pressure of approaching experienced family members.

"It's easier to discuss challenges with peers who are going through similar experiences rather than with someone like granddad, who has been doing this for 60 years and comes with a lot more experience and expectations," Seifrit said.

He noted that one highlight of the group's events is the dedicated lunchtime sessions, where attendees can network and engage in informal discussions. These conversations range from crop cultivation to business-oriented topics such as securing small business loans or finding reliable crop insurance agents.

"Those two hours that we spend sitting around the dining room table give folks a lot of time to ask those questions," Seifrit said.

In addition to networking, Seifrit pointed out the importance of facilitating discussions on topics such as transition planning. Recognizing the need for structured and thoughtful transitions, the alliance offers workshops and expert guidance to help growers navigate the process of passing down the family farm from one generation to the next.

Sarah Lott Zost is a fourth-generation fruit grower and former co-chair of the alliance.

"When visiting farms through the YGA program, you not only see their work but also learn the reasons behind it," Zost explained. "For instance, if you meet a farmer who expanded into something new, you can ask about their decision-making process. As a wholesale grower, we discuss topics such as thinning and trimming, and the YGA welcomes all questions, no matter how basic."

Zost manages Bonnie Brae Fruit Farms Inc., an apple-growing operation that contributes to Pennsylvania's ranking as the fourth-largest apple producer in the nation.

"The YGA and Extension have been excellent resources," Zost said. "Luckily, we live only 15 minutes from Penn State's Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, which conducts a lot of tree-fruit research. The researchers provide timely updates to growers, which greatly benefits us."

Supporting Women in Agriculture

The Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network has empowered and supported women in agriculture for two decades. Initiated in 2003 by Carolyn Sachs, professor emerita of rural sociology, the network's mission is to provide positive learning environments and networking opportunities through on-farm education, hands-on workshops, conferences, mentoring and online information sharing.

"Our research findings indicated that women often were excluded from networks that provided crucial information, financial support and resources for their success," said Kathy Brasier, rural sociology professor and network co-leader. "In the early days, we focused on documenting these disparities and identifying specific educational needs of women."

The research group realized that even women who grew up on farms were not always taught essential skills such as tractor maintenance or animal butchering.

"We found that hands-on learning opportunities, peer-to-peer education facilitated by other women and on-site engagement were vital," Brasier said.

Business development events have played a central role in the network's offerings. These events feature discussions on obtaining loans, accessing land and innovative approaches employed by women. The sessions have hosted representatives from organizations such as Farm Credit, as well as seasoned women farmers with firsthand experience trying various strategies.

"The networking component is particularly crucial to combat this sense of isolation," said Mary Barbercheck, entomology professor and co-leader of the network. "Many women farmers still experience the frustration of not being taken seriously or recognized as legitimate farmers."

For instance, Barbercheck said that women frequently report the experience of being dismissed in settings such as meetings or feed stores.

Looking to the future, the network aims to expand its perspective beyond the traditional rural landscape. "We need to consider women involved in urban farming and food security and address diverse audiences in both urban and rural settings," Brasier said.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, women accounted for 36% of the country's 3.4 million producers, with more than half of all farms having at least one female producer. These female-operated farms represented 38% of U.S. agriculture sales and 43% of U.S. farmland.

"It's crucial to recognize that women have always played an important role on farms, even if their contributions haven't been properly acknowledged," Brasier said, underscoring the power of the network to right historical wrongs. "It's truly wonderful when women become leaders and advocates for other women in the farming community."

Plowing Ahead

"Pennsylvania has twice as many farmers over 65 than under 35," said Katherine Cason, interim associate dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of Penn State Extension. "As seasoned farmers retire, young producers will step up to tend to the farmland that sustains our food production and strengthens our economy. The question remains: Are they prepared for the challenge? We believe they are, especially with the support of Penn State Extension every step of the way."

By Alexandra McLaughlin

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