Jun 13, 2012
Young growers the faces of ag’s future

America’s farmers are getting older.

According to the last USDA census, the average age hovers around 60 years. That troubles Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

“If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don’t know where to begin to talk about the woes,” she said in a press release. “There is a challenge here; a challenge that has a corresponding opportunity.”

A former college professor, Merrigan is making stops at universities across the country in hopes of encouraging more students to think about careers in agriculture. But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, with evidence of a slow resurgence in younger growers taking up Merrigan’s challenge.

Travis Bratschi, 25, from Williamsburg, Mich., dived headfirst into farming out of college. He grew up around farms, but left to go in other directions. It didn’t take long for him to realize he missed it, however. It was the farming lifestyle that appealed the most.

“While most people see farming as hard work, which is absolutely true, being able to be out in the orchard doing something you enjoy is a great feeling,” he said.

Bratschi and his wife, Erin, bought 10 acres in June 2010 to start a high-density apple orchard. Their first planting of about 1,600 trees went in during the spring of 2011. They planted Ruby Macs, Pacific Gala and Honeycrisp apples in a tall spindle system, with 3-by-11-foot spacing and a two-wire trellis.

After much thought and discussion, they decided to buy the adjoining 25 acres, of which 10 were already planted in tart cherry trees. They plan to plant another 2,000 Honeycrisp and Gala trees this year, with an even larger expansion planned for 2013.

Ben LaCross, 33, already had a family farm, LaCross Farms in Cedar, Mich. He grew up helping out on the farm before going off to college to study business administration. When he returned in 2002, he took over the day-to-day operations of the 700-acre orchard.

“I was fortunate enough to have a family farming background and to be able to assume the role that I did in the daily operations,” LaCross said.

Both LaCross and Bratschi are members of the New Farmer Assistance and Resource Management (FARM) program, led by Nikki Rothwell, director of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station near Traverse City, Mich.
“The New FARM group is a great bunch of young growers,” Rothwell said. “It’s a pretty diverse group that is doing some really interesting things. We just recently toured New Zealand together.”

Challenges

One of the challenges beginning farmers will have to deal with is crop loss. Both LaCross and Bratschi are facing that this year, with early spring temperatures that lead into a cold snap.

Bratschi said that meant adjusting their plans.

“My wife and I decided to buy more property that had a producing orchard on it, as we see the benefits of having immediate cash flow,” Bratschi said. “However, we were hoping to have a good crop in terms of size, and felt the market was strong right now in the tart cherry industry.

“Time will tell as to what we have for a crop, but to deal with the potential loss, we have had to shift finances around that were going to be used for expansion and equipment to make sure current obligations can be met.”

LaCross thinks this season might be salvageable, but said it is a matter of going variety-by-variety and seeing how well they come through the weather. The key to survival is diversity, he said. Not only do growers need to have more than one kind of crop, they need multiple varieties.

“It looks bleaker and bleaker every day,” he said, but “I still remain optimistic.”

Another challenge is labor. Being small can be a disadvantage, in that you cannot employ people all summer to ensure you have pickers in the fall, Bratschi said. He is a fan of high-density apple planting systems, since he feels they are more conducive to getting general labor to help with the harvest.

“The technology advancements in some of the platform operations could possibly attract a different class of workers to help with harvest and make the work easier on them,” Bratschi said.

He said the bigger issue is being active in the political world, to inform elected officials that what growers need is workers to harvest their crops.

Opportunities

LaCross said it is vital for young growers to get involved and develop relationships within the farming community. Becoming acquainted with farmers – not only in your age group, but with older growers as well – is key, he said. Farmers traditionally try to help each other out.

“I know several people who started out just as employees at a farm and it worked into something more,” LaCross said. “There is a great opportunity to mentor with the older generation, and they have so much we can learn from.”

LaCross also suggests getting involved with growers groups. He is active with several, especially American Farm Bureau Federation. He served as chairman of the Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee in 2011.

“The program helps develop leadership skills and is a great way to network with other growers,” LaCross said. “It doesn’t matter what commodity, crop or animal; we each face similar challenges as younger growers and we can learn from and support each other. It’s an invaluable resource.”

Do as much research as you can into what you’re thinking about growing Bratschi said. He attended the International Fruit Tree Association’s conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2010, and learned a lot from Terence Robinson’s presentations on high-density apples.

Bratschi said don’t be afraid to put money into the farm – as long as you’ve done your homework.

“I didn’t really want to spend the extra money to put conduit with all my trees in such high density,” he said. “But I learned that if you get three Honeycrisp apples off of one tree, you just paid for the conduit. When you look at it that way, the investment doesn’t seem so bad.”

Visit www.fb.org for more information on the Young Farmers and Ranchers program.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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