Steve Cubbage: Will the Next Generation Show Up to Work?

As a precision ag consultant, Steve Cubbage works with farmers to implement and manage hardware and data and bridge the gap between the two. ( Farm Journal Media )

By now, there’s little doubt the younger generation is changing the look and feel of the ag industry. After all, millennials now outnumber baby boomers. For these up-and-comers, food is personal. How, where and by whom food is produced matters a lot to them.

On the surface, this younger generation, who are stereotypically labeled as harsh critics of our food production system, only seem to want to voice their dissatisfaction vicariously. It’s easy and safe to go after genetically modified apples and Roundup in Cheerios on Facebook and Twitter. What’s becoming increasingly apparent is there’s a much, much lower percentage of this next generation that actually wants to “get their hands dirty” when it comes to being a part of the solution to the problem they’re essentially creating.

How bad is the problem we are facing? According to a 2016 National Science Foundation survey, the percentage of adults who said they found GMOs dangerous was a staggering 79%. That’s up dramatically from surveys in 2000 and 2010. Want more proof? A 2018 International Food Information Council Foundation survey concluded six in 10 consumers noted food sustainability was important to them. The better question might be, do consumers know what sustainability even means?

For something so dangerous and important, you would think more bodies and minds would flock to the ag industry in an effort to “transform” it more to their liking. Right now, the numbers show that isn’t the case. In 2016, an industry study by Land O’Lakes found only 3% of college graduates and 9% of millennials have considered or would consider a career in ag. Such numbers, if true, are alarming. If, according to recent statistics, it takes 15% of the American workforce to produce, process and sell our nation’s food and fiber, then we have a problem. A math problem.

There’s a glimmer of hope this numbers gap is closing. The old ways of ag and the new values voiced by this next generation are finding common ground in nontraditional ways. And as it turns out, some urban-grown millennials are finding it’s OK to “get their hands dirty,” and they don’t have to leave the city to do it.

 Urban agriculture is not an oxymoron but a real thing that’s growing a new breed of agriculturalists. It’s happening in shipping containers, high-tech greenhouses and abandoned high-rises in downtown Detroit. In small and big ways, urban ag is fundamentally changing how food is grown and delivered, and it’s catering to the farm-to-table movement.

Although urban agriculture can’t supply the volume of food needed to feed a nation, it just might be able to teach an old dog new tricks. In the U.S., a mere 4% of the farmers produce nearly 66% of total ag products in terms of value. The technologies, ideas and methods coming from urban farming ventures that drive less water usage, less pesticide usage and little to no nutrient runoff will certainly find their way from the city to the back 40 sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, back on the rural, traditional farm, a generational shift is underway. According to AgAmerica Lending’s “2017 Fast Facts About Agriculture,” millennials make up 8% of U.S. farmers. Couple that number with the fact 20% of all current farmers are considered “beginning farmers,” meaning they have less than 10 years of farming under their belts. Who better to understand and communicate with a millennial than another millennial?  

If millennials truly want to change the world, then there’s no better place to start than with the industry that feeds it. One of the questions ahead is will there be enough people who are motivated to transform the industry for the better and continue to feed a nation and the world like the previous generation did so well? Maybe, just maybe, they might decide it’s OK to get their hands dirty. Who knows, they might even find out ag is one of the coolest and most impactful careers on the planet.