Number of young farmers on the rise

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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Dakota Sedlacek’s farm, on the outskirts of Iowa City, has been in his family for more than 130 years.

He would like to keep it that way.

“I feel obligated to do it,” the 19-year-old said. “And I want to do it.”

He knows it’s hard work, and he probably won’t make a lot of money. But despite the difficulty, he wants to be a farmer.

Sedlacek, a City High graduate, is part of a younger generation of farmers who are stepping up to the challenges of modern agriculture.

Production agriculture — farming for profit — is not as popular of a career option as it once was. Although the average age of farmers continues to increase, more young people are now wanting to be part of the agriculture process in Iowa, experts said.

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The Sedlacek’s farm consists of roughly 600 acres of land, where the family members work together to grow crops and raise pigs, sheep, and beef. A barn with chipping white paint — a staple of the Iowa countryside — houses the mud-specked cattle that need to be fed twice a day.

Working with cattle is Sedlacek’s favorite part of the job — one that allows him to be outdoors and be his own boss. Yet he knows many people in his generation are choosing to sell their farm property rather than take on the responsibilities.

On average, farmers are getting older. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average age for a farmer in Iowa is 56 years, just a year short of the national average.

“You’ve got to love farming,” Sedlacek said. “You’ve got to love farming, or you won’t make it.”
Alan Spencer, the secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Future Farmers of America, said interest in agriculture is still strong. In particular, agriculture education is growing in the state.

Spencer said there are roughly 16,000 Iowa high-school students taking agriculture courses in 220 schools. Around 12,300 of those students are Future Farmer members. And more students are taking agriculture courses now than students did 25 years ago, Spencer said.

In the 1980s, he said, young people turned away from farming when they thought production agriculture was not a viable career option. Now, he said, the diversification in agriculture courses — including options like agribusiness, floriculture, and agriscience — has attributed to the increase.

“It’s just to try to make sure kids understand all the opportunities that are available to them,” Spencer said.

But young people who want to turn to farming still face challenges.

Randy Dreher, 30, said he was fortunate to rent a family acreage when he started farming four years ago. Dreher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business at Iowa State University, worked at a livestock company before deciding to become a full-time farmer.

“I like to control my own destiny,” he said. “Being on the farm gives me that flexibility.”

But the young farmer from Audobon, Iowa, said the high value of the commodities market makes it difficult to find affordable land. He said many in agriculture are pursuing careers related to the field rather than working in production.

“We need everybody in that entire process to make it work,” Dreher said.

Spencer emphasized farming itself is not a dying career.

As the world population continues to grow, more farmers will need to explore resources and technology to handle the increasing demand, he said.

And Sedlacek is ready.

He’s working toward a degree in agriculture production management at Kirkwood Community College while balancing 30 to 40 hours at Hy-Vee each week.

But someday, he said, he hopes to have his own land.

“I can’t think of any better job,” Sedlacek said.

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