Young Guns

Millennials in agriculture are expected to make farming more efficient and profitable.

Published online: Feb 06, 2018 Articles George Silva, Michigan State University Extension
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This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

Millennials as Producers

Millennials represent a cohort of youth born between about 1980 and 2000. Currently, there are 80 million millennials in the U.S. They will make up 75 percent of the workforce in 2025. Growing up with social media, they are often labeled as the transparency generation.

In the farming industry, the generational transformation is beginning to take shape as more and more millennials are taking over family farms. It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of millennials who grew up on the family farm helping their parents have some type of college education.

Millennials will impact the food industry as food producers as well as consumers. The first part of this article will address some of the opportunities and challenges millennials are facing as food producers. On one hand, the flexible working hours, independence, control and choices, and “me time” on the farm are attractive to millennials. Nonetheless, farming is still a physically taxing way of life.

While honoring family traditions, millennials will be motivated to find ways to make farming more efficient and profitable by relying more on technology and entrepreneurship. Automated equipment, tractors, drones and robotics will make farming less cumbersome. Millennials are more likely to partner with friends and neighbors to share the workload, equipment and storage.

The National Young Farmers Coalition is lobbying for policies in the 2018 Farm Bill that will keep young farmers in business. Millennials need easier access to land, capital, student debt relief and affordable health care to succeed. Student debt interferes with their ability to secure additional credit and bank loans. Millennials will pay more attention to diversification and value-added than acreage expansion. They are more apt to subscribe to community-supported agriculture and farm markets to sell their produce.

As communities become more diverse, there will be an increased demand for new ethnic food commodities. By 2050, it is estimated that 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. As both a social and practical imperative, it will make more sense to grow food near these cities. So, millennials will likely be looking at more urban farming opportunities. Institutional barriers for women and people of color to become farmers need to be addressed. Farmers and farmsteads will look different than those in the past.

High-quality internships and apprenticeships that teach hands-on skills will help millennials who have no background in farming. It is also critical to cultivate a productive mindset and patience to deal with stress and overwhelming situations. Beyond the uncertainties of weather, millennials will need to cope with irregular cash flow, destructive pests and unforeseen equipment failures.

Besides education, millennials are also inquiring about financial assistance. To this end, they should search online for a variety of federal- and state-assisted programs. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grants and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loans are available every year.

Given the opportunity, millennials have the potential for success in food production from the standpoint of entrepreneurship, innovation and technology adoption. Experts believe millennials are well-positioned to bridge the gap between complex issues, such as rural versus urban, conventional versus organic, and local versus import, that are currently polarizing the production agriculture sector.

Highly educated and socially conscious young people are generally eternal optimists about their ability to combine family tradition with new technology, to sustainably feed the world with a safe and affordable food supply.

 

Millennials as Consumers

Retailers are actively targeting millennials to cater to their desires and tendencies. Millennials want brands to court them with personalized communications. The food industry is no exception. Millennials are reshaping and transforming the food industry, demanding more choices and options. They have experienced firsthand the baby boomer generation’s struggles with diet-related health problems such as obesity and other chronic issues. Millennials tend to be discerning consumers, and they are increasingly willing to pay a premium for brands and products that embody their preferences for authenticity, transparency and responsible ingredient sourcing.

Although the vast majority of the public still shops by price, the situation in the food industry may be changing. Surveys have revealed health-conscious millennials are no longer willing to spend their food dollars on processed foods. Instead, they prefer fresh food with quality and integrity. They desire and perhaps even demand that food be produced sustainably.

Producers should use millennials’ desire to forge a direct connection with the food they consume as a marketing tool. This scenario provides innovative growers the opportunity to share their unique stories about how, when and where the food was produced. Once the message resonates, many millennials are willing to put their money behind those products.

Millennials are increasingly patronizing farmers’ markets and restaurants that source local goods and services. The quality of life envisioned by millennials is interwoven with the unique and delicate flavors they find in their culinary delights. Restaurants are increasingly providing diverse menu items to accommodate needs of the local and health food enthusiastic, the vegan and gluten-free customers.

The agriculture industry has a critical role in educating consumers regarding common but serious misconceptions. U.S. producers have provided the safest and most affordable food supply in the world for generations. They have achieved this by being good stewards of their land and water resources rather than being polluters, as some special interests would like to portray. There is a collective responsibility to safeguard our farmers and the industry from false claims and fake news that are circulated to differentiate supermarket produce and mislead consumers.

Millennial farmers and consumers in this transparency generation are in a unique position to process information and build consensus among stakeholders. Most experts feel their impact on the food system will be very positive and timely.