You are here
What Are Ag Students Thinking?
Recently, I was attending a county fair queen pageant, where many of the contestants were from farming families. The final question to the contestants was quite interesting. “What factors do you think are important to succeed in farming?” I hurried up and scribbled down all of the answers.
Here is the list: motivation, passion, knowledge, soil quality, determination, equipment, seed supplies, rain, fertilizers, work ethic, and family.
Those answers were pretty good, but in my mind some huge factors were missing. What about the big “T” – technology? With moisture sensors, GPS, onboard computers, field management software, drones and the like coming on the market (what seems to be daily), farming is getting rather technical. If you’re going to stay in business and profit, you have to stay up on the latest technologies. Also, what about the acquisition and management of capital? We’re looking at millions of dollars these days to establish and maintain a family farm. You can’t put all of that motivation and passion to use if you can’t buy the land and equipment to direct it toward.
There is also one other factor that probably would not be mentioned in a beauty pageant – genetic engineering. This is politically unpopular with some folks, but nevertheless, it is one of the reasons farmers keep growing more crops on the same amount of land. Much of the pest resistance, disease resistance, drought resistance, and general production increases of the last 40-plus years are the result of new and better seeds and plants.
After hearing the answers and omissions, I decided to further investigate what current college agricultural students are thinking. What are people who are studying ag right now talking about, and what factors do they think will be important to their future success? I spoke with two young women and two young men, and here is what they had to say.
The first student I interviewed was Alexis Ruemker, Monroe County Fair Queen and a sophomore at the University of Illinois. She is majoring in agriculture education. According to Ruemker, one of the main questions ag students think about is, “Are they going back to the family farm, or are they going to change it up?” That must be a tough question for a young person, with a lot of factors to consider. She also added some associated questions like, “What is the sibling situation?” and “Is there a farm to come back to?” The first of those questions has been around a thousand years, but the second is a product of the low-profit environment we’re living in today. Lastly, Ruemker said that some students are wondering, “If I come back to the family farm, do I need to help change the nature of it?” It may be that what the family farm has always been needs to change into something else to compete in today’s environment.
The second student I spoke to was Courtney Mosbacher. Mosbacher is a freshman at Murray State, majoring in agribusiness and human resources. Mosbacher would like to eventually run a cattle ranch. The first question that came to mind for her was, “Is there room to expand the family cattle and hog operation?” She was literally talking about whether or not there is enough land to support another person or family at their current location. She said that young people are concerned about how far away they might have to travel to expand the family farm. Too far away is a problem, of course, if you are going to try to share machinery and equipment. Mosbacher has also been thinking about some ways to improve farm profitability. She raised the question, “Are there other options to make a little extra income, like honey production, selling jam and vegetables, or leasing wind mills?” I asked Mosbacher what determines who comes back to the farm and who goes off into another profession. Interestingly, she said, “Some of my friends are passionate about things like show cattle, which is their reason for coming back to the family farm.” I also asked Mosbacher about the high capital requirements for getting into farming, and she admitted that thinking about the money factor puts a lot of stress on people her age.
I talked with Nick Needs next. He is a senior at the University of Illinois, majoring in agriculture and consumer economics. Needs said that one tool he is learning about is data analytics. He said, “Working with large data sets is becoming more important.” In the ag school they are using big data to analyze things like seed productivity and soil productivity. Needs talked about the worldwide food supply and farming efficiency, saying, “There are so many costs that go into production; I want to make sure the business of agriculture is running efficiently.” I asked Needs about his friends at school who are going back to the family farm. He said, “My friends who are going back to the farm want to go back with better biology knowledge, commodity marketing skills, and finance skills.” These are all great skills to bring back to the farm. (Throw in accounting, carpentry, forestry, technology, heavy equipment operation, and welding, and they may have it covered.) Lastly, I asked Needs if anything worries his friends who are going into farming. As you might expect, he replied, “They are concerned about land availability and the variability of crop production and farm profit from year to year.” That makes sense.
My last conversation was with Ryan Reeverts. He is a junior at Southern Illinois University, majoring in ag business economics, and he comes from a northern Illinois cattle, hog, hay, and row-crop operation. He’ll be going back to the family business after college. I asked Reeverts if he is concerned about anything. Reeverts started with, “The first thing is international trade. That’s one thing that’s been on my mind for a while. Unfortunately, there is not a really good answer to it.” Like many folks, on the one hand he wants unfair trade practices addressed, and on the other he wants access to the Chinese market and as many new markets as possible. Reeverts continued, “I’m kind of concerned about USMCA. Getting it passed would be a huge positive thing for farmers.”
I asked Reeverts what questions are on the minds of his friends who are going back to farming. He said, “Before the plan goes forward, are my ideas and inputs going to be considered by the prior generation?” That’s a good point that I wouldn’t have thought of. I also asked him what he thought would be the key to successful farming. Reeverts said, “Having a diverse operation will be the key to my success.” That sounds correct to me. His family farm is already broadly diversified, but he said that his family and a fair number of other farmers in his area are exploring what it would take to grow industrial hemp. There is also a swath of hundreds of wind turbines on farms starting 30 miles to the south of his family farm.
Clearly, these young people have a lot on their minds, and they intend to be deeply engaged in the business of agriculture. I think this bodes well for our future.