What young farmers (and the nation) need from Trump's Agriculture pick
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Farming is the bedrock of our nation’s rural economy and, ultimately, our national security. As the Senate considers the nomination of a new secretary of Agriculture, that bedrock is now exposed and deeply vulnerable.

America’s farm population is aging at an alarming rate, and there are simply too few young farmers ready to take their place.

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Farmers over 65 years old now outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of six-to-one, with the fastest-growing segment between ages 64 and 75, according to the USDA 2012 Agricultural Census. Nationwide, over 573 million acres — roughly two-thirds — of farmland are expected to change hands in the next 20 years. That scale of agricultural land transfer has no precedent.

 

Failure to recruit, train, and support young farmers will make permanent the economic decline of rural communities and the loss of vast amounts of agricultural lands. Ultimately, it will cripple our nation’s ability to feed itself in a dangerous and changing world.

This looming crisis, though, presents an opportunity. Young farmers and ranchers are tough, energetic, and dedicated. They are small business owners and entrepreneurs. To invest in young farmers is to invest in the communities they feed and the resources they steward. Supporting their success would underpin rural economies for a generation.  

Though his was the last cabinet position announced by the incoming Trump administration — just one day before our new president’s oath of office — so much depends on former Governor Sonny Perdue’s ability to think long and act quickly. His experience in government and agribusiness have heartened large-scale producers, commodity traders, and industrial food processors. President Trump’s nominee must, however, demonstrate that he understands the needs of all farmers and ranchers, and the looming economic and cultural disasters that await our nation if we do not create more farmers, and fast.

When he testifies before the Senate Committee on Agriculture in the coming weeks, Perdue should outline his plan to protect the availability and affordability of farmland, both major challenges facing young farmers. He should explain, in detail, how he plans to prevent the ongoing and rapid loss of working lands, help new farmers access land close to urban markets where land prices are most inflated, and protect the legacy of a retiring generation of farmers by creating a national plan for farmland transition.

Secretary-designate Perdue should address the challenges these young entrepreneurs face in accessing credit. Farming is a capital-intensive career, and rarely do aspiring and beginning farmers have the liquid assets required to purchase or lease all the equipment, inputs, and land necessary to launch a viable operation. The next secretary must continue to improve young farmer access to farm credit programs.

He should become a champion for the next generation of farmers by working across departments to free them from new sources of financial hardship, like growing student loan debt and a lack of access to affordable health care, and finding new ways to recruit young farmers and incentivize careers in agriculture.

That Perdue grew up on a farm ought to make him intimately aware of the vital role that farmers play in our communities. But young people entering the field today have specific needs and face new challenges, unique from those of generations past. To ensure a future where anyone with enough dedication and grit can succeed in agriculture will require bold action and decisive leadership.

As they pore over seed catalogues and balance sheets in preparation for another year farming in an unpredictable climate, young farmers across the country will be listening carefully. They need to know that their new secretary, and the Senators who would confirm him, understand the gravity of this moment. Their futures, and the future of our nation, depend on it.

Andrew Bahrenburg is the national policy director for the National Young Farmers Coalition.


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