Sleight outlines strategy for drawing ag kids home
Evanston – While some states show undeniable statistics that total populations are growing, some of their most important rural agricultural areas are dying.
In Wyoming, for example, over the period from 2000 to 2009, five counties lost 1,419 people, while the other 18 gained 51,000. Platte County, one of those that lost population, lost 552 citizens.
Weldon Sleight, dean of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, spoke at the mid-October AgriFuture conference in Evanston, and he said rates of loss like Platte County’s will eventually result in three or four farms or ranches operating an entire county.
“People won’t want to go back to those areas, because there’s no community. They’ll go camp out, get the crops out or take care of the livestock, then leave,” said Sleight. “I think we’ll get caught in a huge mess, because we don’t have enough young people prepared to take over. We’ve done a good job of telling our kids not to go into agriculture – it’s too hard and there’s not enough money in it.”
Sleight said ag’s young people need to go where there’s opportunity. “They’ve got to go in there and become one of these owners – and I emphasize owners,” he said. “Some people say that maybe the next generation of farmers and ranchers won’t own their farms and ranches, and that’s terrible, and it’s bad for America. Young people have got to be the next owners, and they’ve got to be family owners.”
He believes one of the reasons more kids don’t stick with family farms and ranches is they don’t understand the work their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents put into establishing the operation. “If they did, I think they’d agree they need to be a part of that legacy,” he said.
He pointed out that women are the fastest growing farm population, and it’s not because young women are going into farming and ranching, but because of the increasing number of widows.
“The human capital is the most critical need in agriculture today,” he said, noting that families with children are most important to rural communities. “Kids are what make strong communities. They keep schools open and Main Streets open. It’s families we need.”
He added that strong communities require an ag base, and also professionals. He also said stores like Wal-Mart are killing rural areas. “Someway, we’ve got to pay a little more to have the living that we want and that we want our children to have, yet we think nothing of taking all of our business to big box stores that take a lot of money away from our states.”
“Every teacher, banker, agency person and every professional in a community better be married to a farmer or a rancher. That’s the way you keep communities strong and healthy,” said Sleight.
The solution he proposed to keeping kids in rural areas is showing them opportunities to come back before they ever leave high school. “We’ve got to train our own, and put our arms around these kids and say ‘please come home’ and show them how. That means a summer job, showing them what education to get and where to get it, and even a scholarship to come home.”
“Before every senior leaves, we’ve got to have a return plan for them. They’re the ones who will have kids. We can’t just bring older people in, or find those who are middle-aged and help them develop something. It’s got to be the youth,” said Sleight.
He also said encouraging youth to return to their own home is the best way to ensure they will stick around. “What if I bring a person from another city? Sometimes it works, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. They can’t get a job at home, so they’ll come and get the experience, then transfer wherever. If I bring the student home, they’re liable to stay.”
A Nebraska initiative focused on making a place for young people to come in resulted in a recruitment orientation committee, which established a “future community position” pool, which includes every position that could come open in the next five to 10 years.
“We developed a curriculum for kids willing to look at some of those, and one of the first things we put together for the course is a class on the rural ethic – being square with your neighbor, learning how to work and desiring to own. That has value,” said Sleight, adding some kids come in and say they “just” grew up on a farm or ranch. “That is the best learning place for analytical skills in the world. If they break down, they don’t walk to town until they try every possible thing to see if they can fix the equipment. What does the city kid do? He walks to town. Rural kids have a jump on analytical thinking we’ll never get in students who don’t have that responsibility.”
Sleight said the outcome of the course is a partnership description put together between the student and the farm, ranch, businessperson or professional. “The banker needs to show the student how to go to school, where to go and what they need to have when they come home. They need to give a paid internship during the summer, and probably have them on scholarship. That’s how they will come home.”
Of ag people or other professionals passing on their businesses to the next generation, Sleight said they need to be smart about it, and rather than selling to the highest bidder, consider the community. “Maybe I need to cut a deal with a young person and sell the farm or ranch at a cheap enough rate that they can make it, and continue the legacy,” he proposed.
In return, he said returning kids need to look at the collateral they’re building. “They can’t look at the amount they make every year or every month, but at the asset they’re building. Too often we want to compare ourselves with city folks, and we don’t look at the asset being built,” said Sleight.
Sleight said economic development councils often look at developing cottage industries that gross $5,000 to $20,000 per year. He asked why the time and effort is being spent there, instead of on agriculture, where 100 cows can gross $50,000 to $60,000 annually, depending on the year.
Speaking to ag students, Sleight said, “Our national cowherd is down, compared to history – the lowest number of cows since 1963. Our beef production is up with fewer cows, and we’ve done tremendous things to increase pregnancy rates and we’re becoming more efficient in producing beef, but there’s still capacity for more cows.”
One of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture’s solutions is the 100-cow program, where graduates purchase 100 cows from a producer upon graduation and go into partnership with him. From there, they can stick with the operation, or build collateral and move on, depending on the situation. Sleight pointed out that’s far better than graduating and working as a ranch hand, because all a ranch hand ever has is the same pickup he started with, while the graduate who becomes a partner can end up with 300 cows to take to the bank to obtain a loan for his own place.
“I think we have marvelous opportunities for entrepreneurship in agriculture,” said Sleight. “If you want to live in a rural community, you have to be able to think outside the box. Is this a challenge or an opportunity?”
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.