Young farmers foresee an optimistic future
By Kate Campbell
Jorge Alanis, SweetBriar Bio-systems production supervisor, explains the Watsonville facility’s procedures for rearing beneficial mites to Young Farmers and Ranchers.
YF&R leaders, left to right, Jamie and Heidi Mickelson of Sonoma County; Jeremy Ellis of Stanislaus County; Daniel Meza of San Joaquin County; and Taylor Serres of Sonoma County work on a leadership exercise during a YF&R Leadership Conference breakout session.
YF&R members Jennifer Scheer of Santa Clara County, left, and Jessica Waldrop of Kern County, scan bean leaves in the insectary, looking for the beneficial mites.
U.S. agriculture finds itself in an increasingly strong economic position, experts told California Young Farmers and Ranchers members attending the annual YF&R conference in Santa Cruz last week. Speakers offered a variety of upbeat assessments on professional and business opportunities for the next generation of agriculturalists, but also outlined challenges facing agriculture in California.
Virginia Agricultural Commissioner Matt Lohr told attendees that getting involved in agriculture today calls for looking at problems differently, developing new friendships and creating strong links to the community.
"The No. 1 question you have to ask yourself is, what do you see as the future of agriculture?" Lohr said. "Every generation has to adapt, change and dream in order to be able to grow."
Lohr and other speakers pointed out that 96 percent of the world's population lives outside the United States and that population is rapidly headed toward 9 billion people who will need to be fed.
"At the same time, here in America, 70 percent of farmland will change hands in the next 15 years," he said.
Right now, Lohr said, about 100,000 American farms provide about 75 percent of the food production.
"There's a tremendous opportunity for California farmers and ranchers to take a seat at the table," he said. "We need big and small farms. There's a role for every farmer to play."
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger told the YF&R leaders, "We're gaining the edge in California agriculture. Already, we're the biggest farm state in the country. We produce 350 commodities and we're doing more with less.
"To maintain our edge, we have to get involved in the political arena and in our communities," Wenger said. "Your voice matters. Agriculture depends on it."
YF&R members said they will put that message into action.
Monterey County cattle rancher Amanda de Dampierre said finding ways to educate the public about what it takes to produce food is one of the biggest issues facing agriculture. She cited the importance of community involvement and participating in events such as farm days that bring the farm to schools and cities.
Daniel Meza of San Joaquin County, who is a Leadership Farm Bureau graduate, said, "For those just beginning their career in agriculture, the primary focus needs to be on engaging our communities and helping them understand what it would be like if there were no farms."
Butte County olive grower Jamie Johansson, who serves as CFBF second vice president, said during the conference closing session, "We got our wish. People do care about what we do on the farm—to the point that they now feel that they can tell us how to farm. We haven't been prepared for that level of involvement in agriculture and that's an important change."
Young farmers and ranchers in California are savvy businessmen and businesswomen, said Danielle Oliver, director of the CFBF YF&R Program.
"They're skilled marketers, communicators, problem solvers and professionals," she said, "and they're on the front lines of issues facing agriculture today as they carve out their niches in this demanding business."
Oliver said YF&R plays an increasingly important role in agriculture by helping young professionals network, gain leadership skills and business insights, while providing a forum for making friends at the same time.
Jessica Waldrop of Kern County is studying to become a pest control advisor and said she plans to specialize in helping farmers protect crops against nematodes.
"In our area, there are a lot of nematodes in orchard soil," Waldrop said. "There's also a need to network with farmers and researchers to find solutions. There's also the legislative aspect of this work. We need to be prepared to go to Sacramento and meet with our political leaders to educate them and the public on the importance of protecting our crops. That means getting involved, taking chances and making changes when we need to."
Shannon Douglass of Orland said she sees a number of benefits to attending YF&R conferences and events, saying they provide a "huge" growth opportunity and a way to socialize and network with people who share similar challenges and interests.
"We've seen a lot of growth in our membership and we see a positive future in this business," said Douglass, who chaired the CFBF YF&R Committee last year.
The Leadership Conference was held in one of the nation's premier regions for growing organic specialty crops. Santa Cruz County houses nearly 100 organic farms growing on more than 3,500 certified acres. Conference attendees got first-hand information on how the area's coastal growing system works to produce nearly $600 million a year in crops—about two-thirds of it berries, including strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
In addition, participants visited an insectary to learn about mass production of beneficial mites for biological control of crop pests.
Also included on tours conducted around the county was a visit to Swanton Pacific Ranch near Davenport. A living laboratory owned by Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, the working ranch provides students, researchers and visitors with opportunities to study resource conservation through sustainable management techniques.
A third tour included a visit to a redwood timber operation, and observed artichoke production.
The YF&R program is designed to serve the interests of Farm Bureau members 18 to 35 years old. Next year's conference will be held in Tulare County, Feb. 27 to March 1.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.