By JONATHAN GANCI
Capital News Service
LANSING — As the state’s agricultural sector continues to grow, so does the need for young farmers, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau.
While the average age of the state’s farmers was about 54 in 2007, the Department of Agriculture believes that number is currently higher — evidence of an old agricultural infrastructure in need of a youthful jolt.
Joe Ott, chair of the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and a grain grower in Lenawee County, said it’s important to get young farmers involved in the community to ensure that small-and medium-sized family-owned farms survive.
However, Ott, who lives in Sand Creek, said it’s tough to get financial backing to start.
“The banking industry has got so strict and tough that it’s just so hard for a young guy –especially if his family wasn’t in farming — to get his foot in the door and get credit established,” Ott said.
“They almost have to have someone willing to stick their neck out and sign on the dotted line with them to get started,” he said.
Jeff VanderWerff, vice chair of the organization’s Young Farmers, said they are eligible for federal loans but some are reluctant to apply.
“There is a fair amount of skepticism about those programs,” VanderWerff said. “A lot of young farmers don’t necessarily want the government to have their fingers on everything that we do.”
Instead, VanderWerff, who farms in Casnovia, points to more local efforts, including programs with the Farm Bureau, that help them connect with communities while improving their business and marketing skills.
“It’s going to help them grow their business and grow themselves personally through professional development training, networking and social interaction,” VanderWerff said.
Along with the high cost of entrance into the business, young farmers also face the problem of land availability.
Through its program FarmLink, the Farm Bureau connects young farmers with retiring ones, in hopes that a younger farmer will take over operations.
According to VanderWerff, the program provides beginning producers a chance while ensuring that farmland isn’t lost to developers.
However, VanderWerff said that the program has limitations and may need help from the state.
“There are a lot of young people that would like to get their hands on those operations,” VanderWerff said. “But for the retiring farmers there isn’t really an incentive.”
VanderWerff said that giving incentives to retirees would help keep the agriculture industry strong for generations.
While some young farmers get their start through such programs or transfers of family farms, others begin through local ties.
Jay Williams, who raises corn and soybeans in Hillsdale County, got his start in 2004 through a neighbor.
Williams gradually earned land by working on his neighbor’s farm, gradually building a base to become competitive.
“It would have been much more difficult if I didn’t have a neighbor that was willing to give me a try and allow me to enter the business,” Williams said.
Williams said that learning from other farmers allowed him to succeed, adding that it’s critical the state encourage young farmers to stay.
“To have a segment of the society involved in agriculture is a great way to retain young talent in the state and keep knowledge in the state,” Williams said.
According to VanderWerff, the Farm Bureau has seen an increase in membership of newer farmers like Williams.
“Young farmers help put a face to a plate,” VanderWerff said. “ They show a farmer behind the food.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
By JONATHAN GANCI