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Q&A: Travis Lichtensteiger, Iowa State agronomy student

Before returning to the family farm in May, the next-generation farmer gives his insight on the future of agriculture.

As agriculture continues to evolve and new challenges pop up, the next generation of farmers represent an important demographic for the outlook of the industry.

The average U.S. farmer is in their late 50s, according to USDA census information, meaning farms could be transitioning now or will be transitioning to the younger generation soon.

Successful Farming spoke with one of those young farmers, Travis Lichtensteiger, a senior in agronomy at Iowa State University, who plans on graduating in May.

Lichtensteiger is a northwest Ohio native and grew up farming full-time alongside his dad, uncle, and brother where they primarily grow corn and soybeans with a little wheat, too.

Read more: How to start the next generation

Q: Do you plan to return to the farm after college?

A: Yep. I graduate in May, and the first thing I’m looking forward to doing after that is running a planter and going from there.

Q: Have you always been interested in agriculture?

A: Basically, I’ve grown up around it my whole life, and it’s something I’ve always been passionate about. I knew I’d take whatever steps necessary to pursue it.

Q: Why’d you go out of state with Iowa State University?

A: Pretty much my whole family goes to the Ohio State University. I have an older brother who graduated there in agronomy, and I decided I needed to one-up him, so that’s why I came out to Iowa State University with their really solid agronomy program.

Q: Since you started college, what suggestions have you or will you pass on to the family farm that you learned from the classroom?

A: The importance of data. I’ve really learned that over the last couple years at Iowa State, and I [started] making those steps on the home farm. Whether it be soil sampling, and then using that soiling sampling data or using variable rate – I’d say that’s a big one. Also, how to efficiently crop scout and to document that.

Read more: Tapping into data

Q: How open were the other members of the farm to some of those ideas – specifically data usage?

A: In the precision ag world, they kind of had a first push, and a lot of farmers I think were disappointed with it. Now, they’ve kind of had a second push. Now, I think they’ve got it figured out. 

With that and my brother and I – I’m about to be a college graduate and he’s a recent college graduate — they’ve taken the steps. It takes a little bit of an investment to get a bigger return, and they’ve been open to that and basically let us take the reins on that, too, because technology can be frustrating at times. 

Q: What areas have you studied abroad in?

A: With Iowa State, I’ve been to New Zealand and Costa Rica. Next week, I’m leaving for Australia.

Q: What’s the impact of your studying abroad experiences?

A: I can’t encourage people enough to go and do those things. It all starts by saying yes, by taking the initiative and saying yes to opportunities. I’ve learned so much from seeing people go about things differently to achieve maybe the same goal that we’re trying to achieve, and maybe they’re doing that more efficiently – constantly asking questions of farmers in other countries and taking notes and researching. 

I think a big part of being an innovative and efficient operation is being open to new ideas, and I’ve had some great opportunities to do that.

Q: Where do you see major developments in the ag industry for the next 10 years – whether it’s data, hemp, or something else?

A: I’ve looked into hemp a little bit, and the biggest advice I have with hemp is don’t grow it. 

In the next 10 years, I think as far as being a young guy, communication is really important – not only with the generation above me in the operation with my brother and other family members, who are involved in the farming operation, but communication with people in the industry that I’m around. My neighbors, my community, and being involved in that, I think that’s a really crucial factor that plays into the next 10 years.

Also, with data and being smart with your data, knowing what your data’s worth. Right now, data’s a theme, and I’m sure companies want to get their hands on your data. Know what your data’s worth. Be smart with that, but still use it efficiently.

Read more: How to thrive on the edge of choas: a guide for farmers

Q: Why are you cautious toward hemp?

A: In order to be effective in a business, you never want to be No. 1 in innovation. I don’t want to be No. 5 either, but maybe I’m No. 2 or 3. I’ve also heard horror stories from going around to farm shows and asking experts in it.

I’ve had multiple people give me that advice – especially being in Ohio, not Wisconsin or Minnesota where it might be more doable. I think the commodities of corn, beans, wheat, and other things a farming operation can do is profitable. There are also other ways you can go with a farming operation to diversify to be profitable.

Q: What are your biggest concerns for the next 10 to 20 years?

A: Running out of money! No, my biggest concern is the world [production] – whether it’s Ukraine, who’s getting really good at growing corn, but the world in general is [improving]. 

I was in India this past summer, and even they’re starting to take steps. Everybody’s taking monster steps in producing, so I’m worried about [that]. The overproduction factor, I think it’s a good thing [because] we have a growing population, but I’m worried about distribution. Trade agreements are obviously a hot topic. 

I’ve seen the future graphs, and it looks like we have a promising next couple years if we can get there. The main thing I’m worried about is overproduction issues and being able to distribute that to the people who need food.

Listen here: Banker-speak for beginning farmers

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: I think it’s important as a young farmer when you go back to a community to share your voice and to have a voice and be strong in communicating what you need to put in line to make sure that you can be a young farmer because it’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to do.

I think it’s smart even if you are a seventh-generation farmer to come back with the mind-set of a first-generation farmer and to be making networking connections and trying to grow. Especially for a young farmer, but no matter your age, in my opinion, if you’re not growing, you’re dying, per se.

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