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Young Farmers Call for Tech Upgrades at USDA

A lack of technology is acting as a barrier for young farmers, and the biggest problem is not in the field, says a new report.

The survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) paints a picture of the concerns of young people getting into farming, who are often without previous experience or inherited land. Major challenges listed include access to land, student loan debt, shortages of skilled labor, and affordable health insurance.

But another considerable impediment for young farmers, says NYFC executive director and cofounder Lindsey Lusher Shute, is a lack of technological upgrades at the USDA. Shute says that though young farmers often get into the profession to get away from computer screens, a lack of the most basic technological upgrades at the USDA could be delaying or deterring young farmers from getting started.

“There is an expectation among young farmers that they will be able to do paperwork, do reporting, and fill out applications online. It is definitely a different process at the USDA that is unfamiliar to many of the young people we work with,” said Shute.

Many USDA programs are still carried out using physical paperwork sent through the mail or delivered to a local USDA office: 40% of survey respondents said that “burdensome” paperwork is keeping them from taking advantage of federal programs that might help to alleviate the other challenges such as debt, training, and access to credit. 

Furthermore, this analog system is also out of step, says the report with the rest of modern farming operations, especially for young farmers who grew up using the internet. “They order seed and stock online, pay vendors with apps, track sales and expenses using programs like Quickbooks, market their products on social media, and implement automated irrigation systems,” said Shute.

The coalition recommends that a full-service website be created to address this concern. “Creating a full-service online portal would give Farm Service Agency (FSA) staff more flexibility to work directly with farmers and put FSA on track to attract the customers of the future.”

Shute said she is encouraged by the new agriculture secretary’s messaging so far.

“Secretary Perdue has placed a new emphasis on customer service at USDA, and we’re hoping that technology will be part of that equation. In-person relationships are still going to be necessary but there are many things that could be digitized and put online.”

The number of young farmers is increasing after a century of decline, according to census data. But the growth is very slow — the Washington Post puts it at 2.2% growth in farmers ages 25 to 34 between 2007 and 2012 with particularly high growth in California, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The overall number of American farmers is on the decline, and two thirds of American farmland is managed by someone over 55 years old. The number of young farmers entering the profession is not matching the number aging out.

When it comes to technology in the field, Shute added that there is an ironic phenomenon wherein the very farmers who may adapt the quickest to new technology often cannot afford it.

“Many of our farmers are still using tractors from the 1950s because that is what is affordable to them. Cleary, that’s not ideal. Leftover technology is what is helping our farmers,” said Shute. The average farm size of survey respondents was 276.2 acres, which is slightly more than half the national average of 434 acres; 67% of respondents said they farmed less than 50 acres.

“They see opportunities to make their operation more efficient, but there may not be technology available at that price point to support them in that way because existing tools are too expensive or geared toward larger scale operations,” said Shute.

Editor’​s Note: The author of this article is Emma Cosgrove. If you're a young farmer, email Emma to let her know which technologies could help you grow your business. This story originally appeared in AgFunderNews

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