Encouraging the next generation of American farmers
By: Congressman Michael McCaul and Senators Jerry Moran and Joni Ernst
According to the latest agricultural census, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, and it is trending upward. Meanwhile, there are more mouths to feed and people to clothe than ever, and farming and ranching remain challenging – and too often thankless – work. That is why every day, and especially on National Agriculture Day, we want to share our gratitude for the individuals who put in long hours to provide for Americans and keep food on our tables. We are thankful for these men and women, but we are also well aware of the importance of inspiring and maintaining a new generation of farmers and ranchers. The need for a secure, steady food supply intensifies each year, and perhaps exponentially, as we look to the future. All of these factors underscore our belief that America must invest in young people involved in farming and ranching.
Agriculture is one of the few places remaining where sons and daughters work side-by-side with moms and dads, parents and grandparents. For decades, families in Kansas, Iowa, Texas, and all across the country have passed down skills and knowledge from one generation to the next. In this way, longstanding agriculture traditions are preserved and values are shared. Unfortunately, it has increasingly become less of the norm for young people to take up the family business and continue in their parents’ line of work. The number of new farmers decreased by nearly 20 percent from the 2007 to 2012 agricultural census, and we expect to see another decrease in the next survey. For young people whose dream is to run a farm or ranch just like their parents or grandparents did, we should do everything possible to empower them to achieve that goal and preserve that way of life.
As Congress works to address the multitude of issues facing our country, encouraging and supporting young farmers and ranchers ought to remain a high priority. This includes aiding youth agricultural organizations, like 4-H and FFA, that give our kids more opportunities to stay involved in agriculture, while reinforcing the lessons learned at home such as responsibility, teamwork, and the value of caring for one’s neighbor. Through 4-H and FFA projects, such as showing animals at local and state fairs, growing and harvesting crops, and building agricultural mechanic projects, students develop the vocational, technical and business skills needed to successfully farm and ranch.
Students often generate a modest revenue from these projects as well – money that is invested in future projects, deposited in savings or put toward a college education. Recognizing the value of these groups and the education they provide, we have authored legislation designed to incentivize more students to begin and continue participation in programs such as 4-H and FFA. The Agriculture Students EARN Act, as introduced in the Senate, and the Student Agriculture Protection Act (SAPA), as introduced in the House, would allow these student farmers, 18 years old or younger, to keep more of the money they earn on all qualified projects by exempting the first $5,000 of income earned from taxes. This tax incentive will encourage more young men and women to complete 4-H and FFA projects that can lead to successful long-term agricultural careers.
More can and must be done if we are to meet the challenges ahead for young agricultural producers. Through the farm bill, we can continue to build on beginning farmer and rancher programs that give young producers greater access to capital and a leg up in times of low commodity prices or during natural disasters. Congress should eliminate the estate tax, which creates challenges for some families to pass on their agricultural operations to the next generation. We must be vigilant in guarding against regulations that harm family farmers and ranchers, such as past proposals by the Department of Labor to ban youth under the age of 16 from participating in many common, farm-related tasks.
We can demonstrate pride in our future farmers and ranchers by investing in the next generation, specifically by passing this legislation. Farming kids across the country today represent the future of agriculture, and enabling them to succeed means we all succeed. The ideals we want our kids to learn – hard work, perseverance and cooperation with others – are exemplified in American children growing up on farms across the country. These ideals are worth preserving; and we should do everything we can to encourage our children to continue their farming traditions.
NOTE: This op-ed originally ran in Agri-Pulse.