Guest Columnist

Iowa's future depends on finding more young farmers

Alyssa Dunn of Fairview backs the tractor out of the garage to feed cows at her family's farm outside Springville on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Her parents bought the farm in 2011, and Dunn manages the 70-head operation. After graduating from college, she studied beef science management program at Kirkwood Community College. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Alyssa Dunn of Fairview backs the tractor out of the garage to feed cows at her family's farm outside Springville on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Her parents bought the farm in 2011, and Dunn manages the 70-head operation. After graduating from college, she studied beef science management program at Kirkwood Community College. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Agriculture is the backbone of Iowa, providing food, fuel and fiber while contributing one out of every five jobs in the state. Our fertile lands, efficiency and innovation in farming have made Iowa the envy of agriculturalists around the world.

However, with just 2 percent of the population growing our food and fuel nearing retirement age, we are facing a critical time in our history: how to attract young people to farming?

For a century, our grassroots farm organization has decided our policies and direction and supporting endeavors that give young Iowans a head start have always been important. Whether they grow up on the farm or come from a more urban setting, the fact is Iowa Farm Bureau would like to see more young people in agriculture. And you should, too.

According to the latest 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, the people who own and farm our land keep getting older: 25 percent now are between the ages of 55 and 64, 26 percent are 65 to 74 and 34 percent are older than 74.

Back when I started farming in 1978, the average age of the Iowa farmer was 47.5. Today, most farmers are nearly 59 years old. Only 8 percent of the primary producers in Iowa are 35 or younger.

Numbers don’t lie: Rural Iowa is risking its sustainability as populations there continue to drain and age. Isn’t it better to help young Iowans find ways to grow their futures in rural Iowa?

The good news is Iowa’s young want to be involved in agriculture. Across our 100 county Farm Bureaus, 32 percent of county board members are under the age of 40. Several hundred young farmers attend our Young Farmer conference each year and several attend annual legislative trips to our state and nation’s capitals.

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We can all do our part to help these young and beginning farmers, whether that’s helping the family farm transition, encouraging entrepreneurism, easing access to capital and farmland or supporting livestock as an entry point.

As a baby boomer, I understand the need to transition the farm to the next generation and how difficult that can be. In 2013, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation launched Take Root, a program that partners with local experts to help Iowans develop a plan that smoothly transitions the family farm from one generation to the next. The goal is keeping Iowa farming in the family. We know there is a need for this type of information as the sessions always draw a full house.

Entrepreneurism, value-added ag

We also see a growing interest in agricultural entrepreneurism and value-added ag in the state, which sparks innovation and opportunity to keep young families in rural Iowa. We have members growing hops for the burgeoning craft beer market, goat farms popping up and community supported agriculture.

Through our Renew Rural Iowa business mentoring program (www.renewruraliowa.com) and the American Farm Bureau’s Ag Innovation Challenge, four young Iowa farm entrepreneurs have claimed the top prize to grow their businesses, earning $85,000 in the program’s five-year history.

That enthusiasm also is why we started a new program this year, “Grow Your Future.” The award for young farmer members, ages 18 to 35, aims to encourage them to find niche markets, start agritourism, specialty products and more. The top winner will receive $7,500, second place $5,000 and third place will receive $2,500. The more we can combine what we know with what we grow, the more we can bring those opportunities back to benefit rural Iowa.

Pushing for legislative action

Other barriers to entry for young and beginning farmers are Iowa’s tax structure, regulations and loopholes that drown out hope for many of our best and brightest to even get started. Changing that is a goal that guided our legislative efforts.

This session, we were pleased to see lawmakers recognize the importance of young farmers by passing legislation to create more opportunities for them, including enhanced funding for the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit. House File 768 is for taxpayers leasing their land to qualified beginning farmers using either cash rent, crop share or flex lease arrangements. The newly passed bill restores funding to the prior level of $12 million per year and ensures that the program is administered in a way that is viable and allows for maximum participation.

This year, our members also worked hard to see passage of capital gains deductions on the sale of farmland in the state. Without the change in the law, landowners would lose a big incentive to sell farmland to young people, eager to get started in agriculture.

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However, with a capital-intensive industry and average farmland prices now ranging from more than $3,400 per acre to more than $10,000, young and beginning farmers are at a unique disadvantage in becoming the next generation of landowners. This session, lawmakers also passed a measure to limit private entities from buying whole farms through the State Revolving Loan Fund. While there has been much misinformation about this bill, it ensures that private organizations do not use taxpayer dollars to finance land purchases, which could give them a competitive advantage over young farmers trying to purchase land. It’s important to note that the bill does not take a single acre away from state parks, nor will it stop any farmer from selling his or her land or donating it to any person or group he or she wants. It also doesn’t prevent groups from doing conservation work using the State Revolving Loan Fund, including putting in “edge of field” conservation work, such as grassed waterways, buffer strips, bioreactors or wetlands. After all, the land is our legacy and without proper conservation, we cannot pass that legacy onto the next generation.

Opportunities in livestock

Some young farmers are finding entry points into agriculture with livestock because it has lower capital required up front and a typically faster return than farmland. It’s helped many of our members, including my own family, bring a son or daughter back to the farm through livestock. The key is to find a business model that works for you. We need to support those who want to farm and put down roots that sustain our rural communities, because they are the innovators of the future.

There are organizations out there to help both sides come together and grow livestock responsibly. The Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers is a great way to get started.

Francis Bacon said, “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” It is our job as farmers, parents and Iowans to do what we can to open those doors, so our young people won’t have reason to leave Iowa to find their opportunities.

• Craig Hill is president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and a Warren County grain and livestock farmer.

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