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Average age of farmers rising as ag students shun farming

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Posted: Wednesday, August 17, 2005 10:00 pm

At age 18, Rebecca Feuerbach has graduated from Galt High School and is headed to college to study agriculture.

But when she finishes college and enters the working world, it's more likely she'll work somewhere near the shadow of the state capitol rather than that of a barn.

Though she was raised on a farm where her father grew rice clover, corn and wheat, Feuerbach has no interest in tending crops or cattle.

"I'm more interested in the big aspect of agriculture, not specifically farming," said Feuerbach, who was heavily involved with her high school's 500-member 4H Club.

This summer, Sarah Van Exel spent her break of at her father's Lodi dairy farm. A junior, Van Exel plans to return to the dairy when she graduates from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where she studies dairy science and agribusiness. She said she loves working at the dairy, where she helps her father with an artificial insemination program for cattle.

Feuerbach and Van Exel personify a trend in agriculture that observers say could vastly change the farming industry. They're both going into agriculture, but only one plans to apply her knowledge into production farming.

Meanwhile, the average age of farmers in California, as well as the rest of the nation, is edging closer to retirement age.

Fewer and bigger farms -- or perhaps the end of farms themselves -- could be the outcome of those trends, observers say.

"Looking at the long, long term, at some point someday there won't be anybody left farming," said Mike Robinson, president of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.

Agriculture's many paths

By 2002, the most recent year such figures were measured, the average age of a principal farm operator in the country was 56.8 years old, up 3.6 years from 1974, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

As farmers get closer to retirement, many are finding there is not enough income to support the family, Robinson said. Seeing this, their children are drawn to jobs away from the farm, he said.

Mike Robinson is the owner of Robinson Farms Feed Company in Stockton. When he retires, his children, including Heather Robinson Tanaka right, will take over the business. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

"That is almost strictly economics," said Robinson, who grows alfalfa, hay and grain at his 3,000-acre farm on Roberts Island near Stockton.

While in the 4H club, Feuerbach raised animals to show at county fairs. But she was attracted to leadership -- she became club president in her senior year. She settled on a course of study after her agriculture and economics teacher set up meetings at the state capitol with lobbyists and the state's secretary of agriculture.

"When I found out what the agriculture lobbyists did, I got really interested in it and it inspired me to a career as an agricultural lobbyist," Feuerbach said, adding that she is drawn to the idea that lobbyists can have an effect on farm-related issues in the state.

While some of Feuerbach's friends will study agriculture in college, two out of four are going into the marketing and business side of agriculture.

Nationally, between 2 and 10 percent of agriculture students go into the production side of agriculture. In California, about 15 percent of agriculture students take jobs in production farming after graduation, said Eivis Qenani-Petrela, a professor in the Department of Agribusiness at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's College of Agriculture.

"But agriculture is very diversified today," Qenani-Petrela said.

Years ago most students would take up crop science or related fields. But the large majority of students at the college now study marketing, sales, appraising, banking and real estate inside of the agricultural sector, Qenani-Petrela said.

About 1,100 undergraduate students are in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at California State University, Fresno, said Dan Bartel, dean of that college.

"Most of those are not what you would think of as production agriculture and people who would go back into farming," Bartel said. Some of the areas with growing enrollment include food science, nutrition, business and veterinary medicine, he said.

Students are also gravitating to the agricultural-related fields of animal and plant science, agriculture business and international agriculture business, Bartel said.

History plays a part

In the early to mid-1980s, when the nation's farms were flung into recession, once strong enrollments at agricultural universities dropped 20 to 25 percent across the country, Bartel said.

A decade later, enrollment saw a small resurgence. But now those figures have leveled off, Bartel said.

Though interest in production farming is declining, the diversification of studies inside the sphere of agriculture studies has grown at a rate that caused Qenani-Petrela's college to cap enrollment at 970.

One possible result, Bartel said: "It probably would mean across the country that you'll have fewer farmers and bigger operations. But in California, not so much."

Much of the production farming in California is dedicated to specialty crops, such as almonds, Bartel said. Farmers need considerably less acreage to grow those types of crops, Bartel said.

A wider range of agriculture studies may not be the only reason behind the advancing age of farmers.

Though they are a fair snapshot of the graying of farming, the census figures may not tell the whole truth because they are simply a survey of owners of record, Bartel said. Other family members involved with the farm are left out of the survey.

A family business

Many farmers in production agriculture, Robinson included, may have sons or daughters who occasionally work on the farm, but hold another job off the farm.

"Most often there is still one sibling still involved (in farming), which would be the next generation that would take over," Bartel said.

For instance, Bartel's brother is a farmer in Illinois. His brother's two sons are bankers, but they also help out on the farm. When their father retires, one or both of the sons is expected to take over the operation, Bartel said.

In California, having a background in agriculture can often be a portent of a future in that sector, said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"Farming in California is almost exclusively a family business. That's pretty much the way you get into it," Kranz said, adding that roughly 98 percent of farms in the state are family run, whether directly or through a partnership between multiple families.

Of the 15 percent of students who study crop and agricultural science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, only about 30 percent have a background in farming, Qenani-Petrela said.

That's a surprise to her, she said, because the university has long been drawing on students with backgrounds in agriculture.

Two of Robinson's three grown children will continue in the business when he retires.

After high school his son, Michael, studied crop science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, returning to work at the farm after graduation.

Robinson's daughter, Heather, majored in business in college and went on to start her own business.

Average age of farmers

According to the U.S. Census of agriculture, the average age of a principal farm operator is:
2002: 56.8
1997: 55.7
1997: 56.5
1992: 55.2
1987: 53.6
1982: 51.8
1978: 51.3
1974: 53.2

But when the opportunity presented itself, Heather came back to her father's farm to run its administrative side, said Robinson, 58. Her knowledge of business software assisted in that transition, he said.

In a study of farm succession, the National Agricultural Statistics Service found that nearly 38 percent of all farms in the nation reported more than one farm operator. But, the study found, most of those additional operators -- potential successors to the farm -- were likely spouses. Only 9 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the study showed signs that they are planning for succession.

Though it may not apply directly to him, the dwindling number of farmers' daughters and sons who stay involved in agriculture is troubling, Robinson said.

"It has been an ongoing, long-term concern in the industry that children on farms are not following in their father's footsteps," Robinson said.

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at jakea@lodinews.com.

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