Looking across the agricultural landscape, Ron de Yong is reminded of when he was a young farmer tilling his first plot of land near Creston.
There was a strong movement in the 1970s as the nation’s agriculture industry boomed and attracted a new generation of young adults who either invested in their own land or took over family farms and ranches.
Forty years later, glimmers of another golden age are appearing as the value of agricultural products skyrockets to record levels, and the director of Montana’s largest industry hopes it will spur a new youth movement into farming.
“There are kids who are coming out of college and coming back to the family farm and ready to jump in with both feet,” de Yong said. “This is the most exciting time of my lifetime. Things have changed. It’s like when I came in, but a little bit different. They’ve got more options. And they’ve got technology.”
Indeed, these are high times in American agriculture. Earlier this month, the lingering uncertainty surrounding the nation’s sprawling farm policy ended with President Barack Obama signing a $956 billion Farm Bill, ending four years of legislative bickering that cast a pall over American farming. The new Farm Bill “lifts up rural communities,” and provides more opportunity to current and potential farmers, Obama said at the signing ceremony.
A new government census released last week punctuated the optimism, showing that the market values of crops, livestock and total agricultural products hit record highs in 2012.
U.S. farms sold nearly $395 billion in products, 33 percent more than in 2007, according to preliminary data from the government agriculture census, which surveys America’s farms and ranches every five years and was released Feb. 20. Data also indicated that the trend of diminishing farmland that erupted in the early 1980s has slowed significantly. Since 1982, 72 million acres of farmland have been lost, but the most recent period saw slower declines.
There were 2.1 million American farms in 2012, roughly 4 percent fewer than in 2007. At the same time, the average farm grew from 418 to 434 acres.
In Montana, where cattle outnumber residents and agriculture is king, the percentage growth in total value outperformed the nation’s. In-state products earned $4.2 billion, a 51 percent increase over 2007; the national average was 32.8 percent.
“The market has been strong for agricultural producers over the last few years, with the high price of wheat and barley, and the continued expansion of the pulse seed industry,” de Yong said. “Montana is really proud of our agricultural growth; a lot of the growth can be attributed to our high-quality product, aggressive marketing, and the rapid expansion of dry peas and lentils on fallow ground.”
The average market value per farm jumped 59 percent, reaching $151,035 in 2012 compared to $94,942 in 2007.
The total number of farms in Montana dropped to 28,008, slightly down from 2007, while the number of small farms grew by 504. The average farm was 2,134 acres in size, 55 acres larger before, reflecting a continuing trend of big farms growing bigger.
De Yong said he is concerned about the shrinking number of medium-sized farms, which presents a problem for rural communities that are often centered on middle-income families.
“I’ve been concerned for a long time that we’re losing farms in the middle,” he said. “They’re the ones who support the rural communities.”
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed de Yong’s sentiment last week after the census results were released.
“We must do more to protect the middle – farms and ranches that are middle-sized and mid-income – and ensure that they can access resources and protections to help them thrive,” Vilsack said. “Here too, the farm bill will provide much-needed relief and stability through guaranteed disaster assistance.”
There are also increasingly older-aged people who make up a majority of farm country’s demographics. In Montana, the average farmer is nearly 59 years old.
“The results reinforce what we have known for many years: the farm population is aging,” Vilsack said.
“While that is a concern, the data also show that the number of young farmers increased slightly and the number of minority farm and ranch principal operators increased dramatically, reflecting the changing face of America as a whole. We are hopeful that USDA policies that attract and retain the next generation of talent into rural America will help to continue this trend.”
De Yong hopes that a new generation is answering the call, pointing out that there were 91 more Montana farmers under the age of 35 in 2012, and the number of farms under 50 acres also increased by 504. The local food movement, which includes farmers markets, has spurred younger people to get involved and excited, while others were encouraged by high crop prices to take over their parents’ operations.
De Yong hopes that the diversification of opportunities and expanded resources, like processing centers, will only keep attracting younger farmers.
Montana is a leading producer of certified organic wheat, dry peas, lentils and flax, and is home to a multimillion dollar honey and pollinating industry, according to the state. Sweet cherries, sugar beets, seed potatoes and hay are among some of the other successful crops grown in the state. Wheat is the state’s top export.
De Yong said food manufacturing is expected to see the fastest manufacturing employment growth in the state, and the opportunities for new and current farmers will keep improving.
“Until these last few years, when (young people) sat down and penciled it out, agriculture didn’t work,” de Yong said. “Now that we’ve had some good years, some of those young folks are jumping in and long term they know it’s going to pay out for them.”
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