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Young farmers take stock of big issues

Agriculture.com Staff 02/09/2016 @ 5:47am

Forty college-age FFA members are getting a crash course in farm survival skills this week in the annual week-long New Century Farmer Conference at the Pioneer Hi-Bred campus in Johnston, Iowa.

The New Century Farmer Conference is sponsored by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Successful Farming Magazine and Rabobank as a special project of the National FFA Foundation.

Diversity is evident in every aspect: although mostly Midwestern, they also come from California, Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York; 10 are young women, compared to just three in 2005; their home farms range from 10 acres of organic vegetables to 10,000 acres of commercial grain.

One of the week's early sessions was on visioning and identifying issues, trends, and forces that will shape the future of agriculture. Presenter David Kohl of Virginia Tech University had the group actively engaged in lively, thoughtful discussion.

Eric Schilling, team leader with FFA collegiate programs, said he wants participants to think big in every session. "You may be limited by cost or land capital, but you're not limited in your creativity, vision, or how you'd put together and execute a business plan."

Kohl invited the group to share points and perspectives they gleaned from the morning's discussion about the biggest challenges and opportunities facing agriculture today:

-Consumers are willing to pay more for a secure product.

-Problems differ by region. (Kohl advised that good managers manage around their problems.)

-It pays to learn from history to prepare for the future.

-There will be a shift from ownership of land to stewardship and control of assets.

-Land prices are dictated more by outside demand than agricultural return.

-Their generation will see an environment of greater extremes. (Kohl added that the trick is to capture profits on the up ticks and mitigate losses on the downslides.)

-In the future, managing natural resources will be as important as managing ag commodities.

In addition to Kohl's background as an academic, basketball coach, traveler, and business leader, his family has a 100-head dairy farm in northern New York. He shared this real-life story: When his farm was ready to add home delivery of milk and ice cream to better compete with the new Wal-Mart in their area, through networking they found a bankrupt firm selling its refrigerated trucks. With funds from the capital reserve account they'd established when profits were high, they were able to buy the trucks - for 28¢ on the dollar.

FFA member and attendee Jeremy Svitak of Howells, Nebraska, is looking at entering his family's farm. He came to this week's session looking for credit solutions and to help determine whether he'll need a full- or part-time off-farm job. "I love to work," he said and explained he has a summer internship at a co-op 5 miles from his home. Svitak, who'd heard Kohl speak before, said he appreciated his relevance and immediate feedback. "He's not trying to tell us things we already know."

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