Idaho

Farming’s shifting future: Fewer ag graduates returning home

Brigham Young University-Idaho agronomy students Rachel Taylor and Kyle Merrill both plan on returning to family farms. They’re among a growing number of students in the field. (Associated Press)
Brigham Young University-Idaho agronomy students Rachel Taylor and Kyle Merrill both plan on returning to family farms. They’re among a growing number of students in the field. (Associated Press)

REXBURG, Idaho – The agriculture industry is growing rapidly and, increasingly, young adults and teens are considering careers in agronomy, agribusiness and animal sciences.

Enrollment in agricultural programs at both the University of Idaho and Brigham Young University-Idaho has nearly doubled in the past two decades. Yet, agronomy instructors said there still aren’t enough graduates to meet industry demands.

“The ag market is booming, and there are jobs everywhere – there just isn’t anyone to fill them with,” BYU-Idaho agronomy professor Jared Williams said.

However, the number of children returning to take over family farm operations is shrinking almost as fast as the greater agriculture industry is expanding.

BYU-Idaho agronomy students Kyle Merrill and Rachel Taylor, both of Washington state, are bucking that trend.

Both are excited about returning to their respective family farms.

Each believes they can make a sufficient living despite the increasing difficulty of competing with corporate farms.

“I put a lot of time and effort into our farm growing up, and I really care about what happens to it,” Taylor said. “My talents are very much fitted to the farm … and it gives me a sense of fulfillment.”

Both recognize, however, that they are part of a minority.

Merrill wonders whether he will be able to pass the farm down to his future children.

“Big corporations are taking over the family farms,” he said. “In reality, the family farm is a bit of a dying breed because the opportunity to go back and work the farm is going away.”

In the past decade, the number of medium-size farms (producing sales less than $250,000 annually) has declined in the United States from 668,000 farms in 2000 to 577,000 farms in 2009.

During the same period, the number of large commercial farms (exceeding $250,000 annually) has increased from 178,000 to 271,000.

Additionally, farmers operating small to medium farms are getting older and fewer young people are stepping up to take their place.

“Many parents are telling their children to go to school and do something else,” BYU-Idaho agronomy professor Greg Blaser said. “It can be very difficult to own your own farm, and many students just don’t think there is enough money in it.”

In 2002, about 50 percent of agriculture graduates at BYU-Idaho returned home to farm. Today, less than 25 percent of graduates return, Williams said.

Paige Nelson, an animal science major at BYU-Idaho, is among those who won’t return to take over the family ranch in St. Anthony, even though she will inherit a large stake in it.

Nelson is one of four siblings who will inherit the ranch, which is large enough to support only one sibling.

So, rather than return home, the college senior is exploring other agriculture-related fields. She hopes to become an agricultural journalist.

Like Nelson, other children raised on the farm are using their agronomy or agribusiness degrees to enter fields such as agricultural consulting, commodity sales or management jobs.

“We are seeing more kids with agriculture backgrounds staying in agriculture, but most are looking at the broader industry for jobs,” Williams said. “And we are seeing more and more jobs opening up (for these students).”

But for Merrill and Taylor, the challenge of taking over the family farm and keeping it profitable in the face of growing corporate farms is very alluring.

“In the last decade, farming has boomed and farmers are making a good living,” Merrill said. “By going to school and then returning to the farm, I’m gaining new skills my father didn’t (have) that will help me increase production and give my family a better life.”



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