This is the second article in our Voices of Peanut Farming series.
Just 6% of America’s farmers are under the age of 35, and only about 17% are younger than 45, according to USDA.1 As half of America’s farmers are poised to retire in the next 20 years, the future of American agriculture depends on younger generations. Here, several younger peanut farmers speak about why they chose careers in farming, the value of younger people in the field and the challenges and opportunities for the next generation.
Florida peanut grower Dexter Gilbert. (Credit: Georgia Peanut Commission)
Young Farmers—Determined and Opportunistic
Dexter Gilbert is a 42-year-old farmer in Jackson County, Florida with a wife and three children. A third-generation farmer, he raises cotton, peanuts, watermelons and cattle.
“I come from a family that was real poor,” Dexter said, “My grandfather’s father, they had a little farm … [with] cows, chicken, goats and these low crops. But me and my older brother … we had a passion to want to farm big. [We believed] in ourselves that we could do it no matter where we come from, and what challenges we faced and we worked hard. Even now after losing my brother some 18 years ago, I just had that firm belief that I could do it.”
Now Dexter farms about 2,000 acres with his father and nephew.
Hear Dexter talk about how he got his start as a young farmer.
Most younger farmers come from farming families rather than outside of agriculture. While they may have grown up on the farm, many are encouraged to get their education and experiences off the farm before deciding to come back.
Oklahoma peanut farmer Austin White with his mother Gayle, Oklahoma’s representative on the National Peanut Board.
Austin White is a 29-year-old, fifth-generation farmer in Tillman County, Oklahoma. He grows peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat, hay, milo and sesame.
“Your entire life, you grow up hearing about how tough it is to be a farmer," Austin said. "My parents said, ‘Do what you want to do. We’ll give you the facts of what farming life is … We’re not going to pressure you one way or the other. You need to make your own decision because farming’s tough and you have to love it to be successful at it.’ They’ve definitely set a really good example for me.”
Meredith Rogers is a 50-year-old farmer in Camilla, Georgia who had a similar experience.
“[My parents] encouraged [my two siblings and me] to be part of the farm and to be vested in the farm, but they also encouraged us to go get our education and have some jobs off the farm before we came back,” Meredith said.
Meredith’s family has been in farming for three generations and now primarily grows peanuts, cotton and corn, and also fresh sweet corn.
Georgia peanut farmer Meredith Rogers. (Credit: Georgia Peanut Commission)
“[My parents] wanted us to have a chance to work somewhere else and work somewhere off the farm,” Meredith said. Meredith earned a degree in accounting and worked for several large CPA firms before deciding to come back home. Her two siblings decided not to return to the farm and currently live and work in New York City.
Passing the farm along to family members isn’t possible for everyone. Austin’s mother Gayle emphasized the importance of older farmers looking to people outside their families, like a trustworthy and interested employee or family friend, to mentor and pass on the farming operation to. “We have to plan to keep America’s land in agriculture,” Gayle said.
“You cannot farm without land, and you must have good land to be a good farmer," Dexter said. "We are going to have to be willing to pass on some good land to these young farmers that are coming into agriculture in the years to come. We are going to have to be willing and able to pass on equipment to help them out.”
Without it, they won’t make it.
For Dexter, the biggest support he received as a young farmer was from the community. “[I’m farming] to help some else along the way because if it wasn’t for the neighbors, the friends, the people that we had worked for over the years at the farm helping us out to get started, I wouldn’t be a farmer today.”
Young Farmers Bring Energy and New Ideas
Just like outside of agriculture, younger people in agriculture are generally more adept and open to understanding and using technology.
“I think the younger people … just have a different way of looking at things, maybe a different way of problem solving,” Meredith said. “They tend to be a lot more technologically advanced than the older farmers, … which I think is really important in agriculture right now, especially with [the need] to raise more and more on less acres … It seems that the younger people are much more open to precision farming, and variable applications and maybe even using drones in certain ways.”
Hear Meredith talk about the benefits of younger people on the farm.
Austin studied agricultural business and economics at Oklahoma State University, attended Texas Tech University’s ranch management program and believes this education benefits the farming operation.
“What I emphasize in is more of the marketing and economics,” Austin said. “With margins being so tight, you have to plan everything out and try to squeeze every ounce of revenue out of everything you do and become more efficient and budget things.”
Challenges for Young Farmers
Two of the biggest barriers for new farmers are today’s high cost of farming and the lack of available farmland.
“It takes a lot of money to put a crop in the ground,” Austin said. “It seems that the cost of production just keeps going up, but commodity prices and what we receive is staying the same, or getting less over the past couple years.
Meredith agreed. “Farming is not easy to get into because it’s such a capital-intensive thing. You have to have so much money to be able to purchase equipment and buy and rent land … It’s very intimidating and difficult to get into and I think that’s really hard for young people
“It’s always easier if you’re coming back and working with your family. That helped a lot, that my family already had a relationship with different banks, and credit lines … It was an easier transition for them to start looking to me as opposed to my father … I’m sure that it’s much harder if you’re … in it by yourself.
For Dexter, “the biggest challenges were not being able to get the financing that we needed to farm [and] not having land for collateral to go out and borrow money to farm with.
“Coming back [home], I’ve been fortunate enough to lease some property,” Austin said. “But most of [the land] is the same people that have farmed it for a long time and it’s just going to take a long time for me to get more ground leased and build my own operation.”
Hear Austin talk about how his family helps support his farming career.
New Farmers Need Ag & Business Education, with a Side of Patience
Dexter, Meredith and Austin all agreed on the importance of a formal education for younger growers.
“Education is the number one priority because … it’s all about technology out on this farm now,” Dexter said. “That’s one thing I try to instill in my older son, ‘Go and get all the education you can, and then come back to the farm.’”
Meredith emphasized the importance of business: “My background in accounting has really helped me. It’s very important to know the business side and to understand accounting because there’s always going to be times of low prices. I know my dad always used to tell me, ‘Don’t worry about the good times. They’ll take care of themselves. It’s the bad times you have to make it through.’”
Extensive formal training and education are motivating for the young farmer, but Austin cautions, “Be prepared to work hard and [have] patience. I came back and I want[ed] everything to happen now and you can only do so much.” Austin also encourages younger farmers to “Try to look out forward in to the future … and make every decision count … Always be looking for an opportunity and try to advance yourself.”
Nurturing the Next Generation
Today’s younger farmers are already instilling a love and understanding of agriculture into their families. They consider farming a lifestyle more than just a career choice. It’s a life that you can involve the whole family in and nurture the next generation of agricultural leaders.
Meredith and her husband chose to leave big city life and return to agriculture when they had children, who are now ages 23, 21 and 13.
“Growing up, one of my favorite things to do [was] just to hop in the truck with my dad and go check the cows, and check the crops, and walk through the fields,” Meredith said. “And so I try to spend some time doing that with my children, too. Sometimes you get so busy it’s hard to take the time to just put them in the truck and just go look at everything, but that’s some of the [most fun] times … My 21-year-old [daughter] really enjoys the farm. My 13-year-old absolutely loves to be on the farm, in the truck, looking at things on the tractor. He absolutely loves it right now.
“A lot of times when you work in an office [your children] really are not a part of everything you do. [The farm] is also … a family business with my parents and my husband and [me]. We can all work together in raising the children."
Dexter has similar experiences with his family on the farm. “We all go to work together, and we can just have a good time out on the farm doing something that we love … Our farm is very, very family oriented. The little nieces and nephews that’s just a couple of years old, we bring them out on the farm … We don’t try to keep them shut out from being out in the fields, riding on the tractors and all that good stuff.”
Oklahoma peanut farmer Austin and his father Joe D.
“I want to raise a family in a small town,” said Austin. “I was given a lot of opportunities that other people growing up in a city weren’t given. I feel like I owe that … if someday I have children, to let them experience the same thing I did in growing up on a farm. I fell in love with it. It’s a bug and I can’t get it out of me. I don’t think I could do anything else now.”
Listen to the full interview with Austin White.
Listen to the full interview with Dexter Gilbert.
Listen to the full interview with Meredith Rogers.
1. USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2012 Consensus of Agriculure. Accessed August 31, 2015. www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Typology/typology13.pdf