A while back, I wrote a column that looked back on an item from a North Dakota newspaper in 1925 that had the optimistic belief that tractors and washing machines would “keep children on the farm.” Since we now know that those items did little to stem the exodus from farms, I asked readers what they thought might keep people on the farm.
I had a lot of calls and emails, and I read plenty of thoughts online. Most of the thoughts seemed to go into three categories:
1. Change farm policies.
2. Sell to end consumers.
3. Seek out smaller, more financially sustainable options.
Many people have ideas on ways to change farm policies. Some want to find new and better safety net programs; others want to do away with such programs.
One caller told me he thinks part of the answer would be getting rid of or reducing crop insurance subsidies, and he backed up his opinion with some research suggestions. He believes subsidized crop insurance has allowed the big to get bigger by spreading out risk across more and more acres, while small or beginning farmers don’t see as much benefit. He thinks getting rid of subsidized crop insurance would level the playing field.
Several people suggested that the answer for people who want to stay in agriculture and have more control over their market is to sell directly to consumers. That is something that already does work for many people. There is a customer base for selling items off the farm: meat, vegetables, any number of value-added products and more. By eliminating the middleman, producers can capture more profit. While not everyone has the marketing skills or the desire to work with consumers, it is an avenue to make some operations more viable.
Shortly after I wrote my column, I visited with Karl Hoppe, livestock systems specialist for North Dakota State University Extension based at the Carrington Extension Research Center, to get his views on production of hay and other feeds given this year’s lousy conditions. We spent the better part of an hour discussing other ag-related issues, including ways to make farming more viable.
Karl had just returned from a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension conference, and the operations he had learned about were still very much in mind. For some people, the best way to stay in agriculture may be to start small and find something that can be done with fewer resources ... and possibly fewer headaches, he told me. Not everyone can obtain the money to buy or rent hundreds or thousands of acres of land and grow corn or soybeans. But growing vegetables doesn’t take as much space and can be started on a smaller scale. Keeping a small herd of sheep or raising poultry for eggs or meat takes less overhead than a large cattle ranch. Being creative and being open to new ideas of what a farm might look like could allow people to find ways to stay on the farm. “If you want to work in agriculture, there are ways to do it,” he said.
Keeping young people interested in farming and ranching doesn’t have any one answer. For some, it takes a supportive older generation. For others, it takes some creativity. But I did draw some conclusions we all can learn from. First, it’s important for all of us to be engaged on policy issues; don’t be afraid to think differently than others. And second, don’t be afraid to think outside the box on your own farms and ranches. Maybe we just need to be open to reimagining what a farm can be.