ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture
Kathleen Merrigan sees an epidemic of sorts sweeping across
America's farmland. It has little to do with the usual challenges,
like drought, rising fuel and feed prices or crop-eating pests.
The country's farmers and ranchers are getting older and there
are fewer people standing in line to take their place.
New Mexico has the highest average age of farmers and ranchers
of any state at nearly 60 years old, and neighboring Arizona and
Texas aren't far behind. Nationally, the latest agricultural census
figures show the fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers are
those over age 65.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is beginning work on its 2012
census, and Merrigan is afraid the average age will be even higher
when the data is compiled.
"If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don't know where
to begin to talk about the woes," she told The Associated Press in
a phone interview. "There is a challenge here, a challenge that
has a corresponding opportunity."
Merrigan, a former college professor, is making stops at
universities around the country in hopes of encouraging more
students to think about agricultural careers. She was in New Mexico
and Arizona last week, and had stops planned this week at the
University of Colorado in Denver and Michigan State University.
Aside from trying to stem the graying of America's farmers and
ranchers, her mission is fueled by a recent blog posting that put
agriculture at No. 1 on a list of "useless" college degrees. Top
federal agriculture officials are talking about the posting, and it
has the attention of agricultural organizations across the country.
"There couldn't be anything that's more outrageously
incorrect," Merrigan said. "We know that we're not graduating
enough qualified aggies to fill the jobs that are out there in
Add to that a growing world population that some experts predict
will require 70 percent more food production by 2050, she said.
Matt Rush, director of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau,
was in California last weekend speaking at a conference for young
farmers and ranchers. He made the same point.
"I truly believe we're at a golden age of agriculture. Global
demand is at an all-time record high and global supplies are at
all-time record lows," Rush said. "Production costs are going to
be valuable enough that younger people are going to have the
opportunity to be involved in agriculture."
The aging trend has been decades in the making. Between 2002 and
2007 alone, the number of farmers over 65 grew by nearly 22
New Mexico tops the list of states with the highest percentage
of older farmers and ranchers at 37 percent, followed by Arizona,
Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
For every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are
five who are 75 or older, according to Agriculture Department
While Merrigan can't explain why New Mexico is leading, she said
the challenges for young people entering the industry are common
across the nation - from escalating farmland values to accessing
USDA has programs aimed at developing more farmers and ranchers
and at boosting interest in locally grown food. In 2009 and 2010,
projects in 40 states helped add thousands of new farmers and
ranchers to the ranks, Merrigan said.
The National Young Farmers' Coalition has also been pushing for
state and federal policy changes to make it easier for new farmers.
Rush and New Mexico farmer and rancher Pat Woods said it will
take streamlining the system to make a difference.
"There are a lot of programs through USDA for young farmers and
ranchers, but any of us know when you're dealing with federal
programs, there's enough red tape to make the red tape blush,"
Woods started ranching in his 20s with help from his father.
He's now 62 and is grooming his own son to take over the family
"I'm trying to do my best with some kind of succession," he
said. "I'm putting my son in the hot seat. He needs to know how to
make the day-to-day decisions on feeding the cattle and farming the
land and making decisions on how to get the tractor fixed and all
of that kind of stuff. I'll help him on anything he needs help
with, but there's a lot of this stuff he needs to do on his own to
Regardless of age, Woods said farming and ranching requires
Ryan Best is determined. His mission is much like Merrigan's.
As president of Future Farmers of America, the 21-year-old Best
has been living out of a suitcase, traveling the country and
visiting with high school students about careers in agriculture.
He'll be on the road 310 days this year and plans to log 125,000
Best hopes his message - that this is a new time in agriculture
- will resonate enough with the next generation to turn around the
"Never before have we had the innovations in technology which
have led to agriculture in this country being the most efficient it
has ever been," he said. "There's really a place for everybody to