Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture focuses on bringing young people back into agriculture
For more on the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture, click here or search Twitter for the hashtag, #agforum2016.
DENVER — The agricultural industry faces a problem that has nothing to do with food, money or regulations. It’s called the graying of ag, and it means trouble if the industry doesn’t get an infusion of younger producers.
That’s why the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture at the Renaissance Hotel at Stapleton on Thursday focused on the Next Generation of Agriculture, by offering presentations on technology, farm succession and other topics important to youth in ag.
“If we don’t remain committed as a state to our rural communities and to cultivate the next generation of ag leaders, we can have all the water and technology innovations we want,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper during his address. “In the end, it’s our people — it’s our farmers and our ranchers that really allow this to be such a strong industry and such a sustainable industry.”
Each of the speakers Thursday morning accentuated the same point — Colorado has a great agricultural industry and community, but if it wants to keep that going, young people are the key.
David Brown, professor and co-director of the community and regional development institute at Cornell University, cited data from the Census of Agriculture.
The average age of a primary farm operator in Colorado, 59, is more than a decade older than most other industries. From 1997-2012, that average age went up by more than 5 years, Brown said.
In that same time, the number of young people in agriculture dropped about 20 percent, though Brown didn’t specify what age that entailed. The total number of farmers in the U.S. is shrinking, too, but in the same time frame, it only dropped by about 4 percent.
“The decline may indicate young people don’t see (farming) as a viable career,” Brown said.
The stats, while cause for action, aren’t cause for panic, Brown said. In some communities, where urban and rural meet — like Greeley — the conditions are there to draw people into ag.
In these areas, there are additional opportunities for new farmers to market their goods directly to consumers via farmers markets and retailers. The places where urban and rural areas meet also were the locations of the highest population growth from 2010-15, and Colorado had the third-highest rate of population growth in the nation.
As agricultural jobs near urban and suburban areas grow, this helps the local economies grow, too, which helps spark need for more local food and development, Brown said.
It’s a symbiotic relationship that leads to even more growth between farmers and consumers, and an economic partnership that makes sense to young farmers looking to break into the industry.
Young farmers also are looking to areas like Greeley, rather than traditional small, rural communities, because they offer more of the amenities they’re used to.
The competition between municipalities and farmers for resources was called into question several other times during the conference, especially on the topic of water.
Don Shawcroft, the president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, encouraged Hickenlooper to fight for water projects in the state. His plea was met by applause from the room of more than 400 attendees.
Officials, like Hickenlooper and Don Brown, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, emphasized the need for action on these topics, but also the need for rural and urban collaboration.
When Hickenlooper goes to the National Western Stock Show every year, he’s amazed to see people who are years and generations removed from the ranch electrified by a rodeo’s energy.
But, that spirit lasts because Coloradans are proud of their home and the things that come from it, he said, whether those things are steers or the Denver Broncos.
“It’s an important thing for people to have pride — not just the people who produce the food, but everyone,” he said.
He also emphasized that pride is what leaders are using in places like Colorado State University and programs like the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program to revitalize the next generation of ag in Colorado.
Other panel discussions during the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, also highlighted the topics important to youth in ag, such as drones, the role of women in agriculture and the future of cannabis as a crop in Colorado.
Don Brown said there are many things that have kept young people out of agriculture, like high barriers and costs to entry, but he hopes to start fixing those now. There’s legislation in the works to offer tax breaks to landowners who lease to new farmers, he said, and he emphasized the importance of keeping taxes low and technology access high for new farmers.
“I think maybe there were other vocations that were more attractive to them,” Don Brown said. “We’re trying to change that.” ❖
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