Amy Bishop had the skills and experience to be a successful farmer. She just needed land.
Over the course of 10 years, she scoured plat books and aerial images to identify vacant farmsteads within larger parcels of land, and she wrote more than 30 letters asking landowners in Eastern Minnesota to sell.
“I had very little response from those,” said Amy, whose vision was to start a small, diversified farm along with her husband, Aaron. “It was just a little bit disheartening, over the years, for having written so many letters.”
The Bishops say the challenge of land cost and availability was nearly insurmountable. That changed when Harvey Benson, an older farmer and close friend of the couple, included them in his succession plan. Benson continues to live on the land, but Aaron and Amy took over farm ownership and operations, making low payments that will eventually total about half of the 160 acres’ current value. Without that gift, Aaron said, buying a comparable farm would have been impossible.
“There’s just no possible way unless we wanted to be in debt forever — literally until we were dead,” he said.
Supporting new and beginning farmers is just one area of concern for state policymakers as the agricultural economy continues to shift. Workforce shortages and climate change pose significant challenges too, and state leaders say addressing these issues will be an important part of building resiliency in a sector that touches most aspects of life.
According to a study commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation, U.S. jobs directly related to food and agriculture totaled 22.8 million in 2019, with wages of $729 billion and $2.1 trillion in economic output. (This includes direct farming and ranching, manufacturing, wholesale and retail). In addition to putting food on tables, agriculture provides the foundation of rural economies.
“You wonder why your rural schools close, or your rural businesses, your hardware store, your grocery store close, if you don’t have people on the farm,” said Minnesota state Rep. Rick Hansen.
New and Beginning Farmers
For new and beginning farmers across the U.S., the challenges Amy and Aaron Bishop faced finding land will sound familiar. In time, their unique solution may become more familiar too.
Veronica Nigh, an economist at the Farm Bureau, says access to land and capital are two of the biggest obstacles for beginning farmers across the U.S. At the same time, the average age of farmers has been increasing for decades, and older farmers often face challenges in transferring their operation to the next generation. Farms are also getting bigger to stay profitable, Nigh says, setting off a cascade of rising costs.
“All the economies of scale kick in,” Nigh said. “We’re seeing increase in prices for land, increased prices for inputs, for machinery. All of these things make it all the more challenging for new farmers ranchers to enter the business.”
Nigh says tax policy is an important area for policymakers to think about in supporting new and beginning farmers. At the federal level, she says that means protecting things like stepped-up basis for farmers to shield new operators from potentially devastating taxes on increased land value. At the state level, too, Nigh says leaders should be aware of how tax policy impacts farmers’ ability to transfer their farms to the next generation.
Additionally, some states are creating matching programs to help older farmers identify non-related new and beginning farmers to take over their operations. In Minnesota, legislation during the 2021 session allotted $300,000 for an emerging farmer office and hired a full-time emerging farmer outreach coordinator. The state also maintains FarmLink, a website that matches farmers who are nearing retirement without family members to take over the farm and beginning farmers who are looking for land to rent or buy.
Minnesota state Rep. Rick Hansen says demand outpaces supply in the state’s new Emerging Farmer’s Program. “We’re finding that there are more people who are seeking to come into farming than are wanting to transfer,” he said. “So, we think it’s a good program. But it’s not enough. The barriers are still there.”
Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg says her state is focusing on access to capital for farmers and ranchers in their first 10 years of operating. During the last session, the legislature created a $30 million revolving fund — available to farmers and ranchers as well as small and mid-size processors — to offer unconventional loans.
“There are a lot of great lenders out there for agriculture and for beginning farmers as well, but folks do fall through the cracks, especially if they lack equity or collateral and they can’t actually get that first step in the door at a bank saying, ‘Hey, I’m worth it. Take a risk on me. Let me prove myself,’” Greenberg said. “That’s where we want to fill in and play a role and help get more young people, more beginning producers, get that initial foot in the door.”
producers or industrial operators, farmers and ranchers feel the same workforce shortages that impact every other sector of the economy.
“Access to affordable and reliable labor was a crisis before COVID, and COVID only magnified and compounded an already Top 3 agricultural issue nationwide,” said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. “People who want to work outside, work 80-hour weeks and be exposed to the uniqueness of agriculture are hard to come by.”
In Quarles’ assessment, the influx of federal aid during the pandemic exacerbated already-existing workforce challenges in his state. He says Kentucky has the second-lowest workforce participation rate in the U.S., so it’s a challenge to get people back into the workforce at all, let alone in a sector with the physical demands of agriculture.
Playing into workforce challenges, Quarles says, are issues related to H-2A and H-2B — the visa programs that allow farmers to hire non-U.S. workers for temporary agricultural and non-agricultural labor.
“Since the 1980s, agriculture has been reliant upon the H-2A, and in a limited way, the H-2B visa program for guest workers,” Quarles said. “We believe that those programs have become too overly complicated. And we also believe that they’ve caused an administrative burden on farmers to the point where the system’s broken.”
Nigh, the economist for the Farm Bureau, agreed that farmers see H-2A as burdensome, and that it’s “incredibly expensive for farmers to utilize.” The fact that American farmers are using the program anyway, she says, speaks to the desperate need for labor.
“Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to source or find workers domestically,” she said. “So, despite the challenges of the H-2A program, they’ve been forced to utilize that program because they can’t find a workforce here in the U.S.”
Quarles believes the H-2A program should be overhauled — maybe even moved under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Labor. Whatever the solution, he says some kind of H-2A reform to address national security concerns while allowing seasonal labor is a top concern for every state.
Increasingly, new technology and automation seek to address some of the challenges caused by workforce shortages. For example, Kellie Adesina, director of government affairs at Bayer Crop Science, a CSG Associate, says Bayer provides digital tools to help farmers analyze data to maximize yields per acre. Adesina says these solutions also highlight infrastructure and knowledge gaps that will need to be filled.
“With that data and technology comes the need for rural broadband, so access to high-speed internet is really important,” Adesina said. “When you think about data and technology, you’re going to need new skills. So, you’re going to need people in the tech sector who have that technical background — engineers — and you always are going to need agronomists and scientists as well. Those are some of the needs that we see that are going to come on the horizon.”
In addition to increasing productivity, new technology will continue to reshape agricultural processes. Quarles says on his own family farm, labor shortages meant that the tobacco crop was not completely harvested last season.
“My dad is 71, and this is the first time in his entire life we were not able to finish the crop out,” he said. “There is a need for optimization in the industry, but the problem is that when you’re working outside and every field is different, it’s a very different environment compared to a controlled manufacturing plant.”
Despite the challenges, Quarles expects to see an “automation revolution” during his lifetime.
“It’s not only going to help alleviate labor, but it’s also going to increase our efficiency and productivity,” he said. “Instead of broadcasting fertilizer across the field, we’re going see technology — that is already in its beta phase — that specifically gives each plant in that field the exact amount of nutrition it needs for optimal growth.”
In Colorado, Greenberg says her state is working to engage youth in agriculture at an early age, including areas that will become increasingly important to the industry. A Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program brings middle and high school students to learn from agriculture lab scientists; a paid apprenticeship program gives kids real experience on farms; a department internship introduces young people to the policy and government side of agriculture.
“It’s really kind of taking the lid off of ‘What does it mean to be involved in agriculture?’ and, hopefully, communicating that there’s a place for young people in the next generation, no matter your starting point,” she said.
Kathryn Unger, vice president for North American Government Relations at Cargill, a CSG Associate, says COVID-19 exposed and increased workforce challenges that already existed. Cargill, which employs 150,000 people in 70 countries, touches a dizzying array of industries, from meat processing to grains to industrial inputs. Without the courage and determination of workers, Unger says, the supply chain would have fallen apart. While saluting workers, however, she stresses the importance of addressing workforce issues before the next crisis. “Let’s address what we can today, so that we can meet any future disruption being as strong as we possibly can,” she said.
Unger’s call to state leaders is to pursue consensus and bipartisan solutions, and she said she appreciates the leadership of CSG as a source of trusted, nonpartisan expertise.
“It’s so important to have nonpartisan organizations that are sharing information so that we all can start at the same point,” she said. “We’ll make our own decisions, but we ought to be able to start at the same point with the same information, and being nonpartisan or bipartisan is incredibly important to Cargill. There’s no way we would have lasted 157 years without that. During all that time, under whatever administration, we’ve connected our farmers with markets, our customers with ingredients and animals and people with whatever food they eat – that’s who we are.”
Even if workforce shortages were solved today, farmers face new challenges as climate change accelerates drought, wildfires and other increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. An increasing global population demands more food, and diminishing resources require more responsible care.
“Our seasons are changing our spring runoff,” Greenberg said. “Our snowpack is changing, and we have to change with it. So that necessity of adaptation is very much front and center for all of us, but for agriculture in particular.”
Greenberg says farmers are also beginning to think about agriculture not just in terms of yields, but in terms of climate mitigation and resilience.
“We created an Agriculture Drought and Climate Resilience Office last year,” she said. “It’s really going to help us set the stage for what are the most strategic investments to build that resilience in agriculture as we adapt to also help mitigate the impacts of climate change. We believe very firmly that ag is a partner in this, and we are part of the solution.”
Colorado also launched a pilot program this year with more than 100 producers to implement voluntary soil health practices and monitor the results. The state is partnering with supply chain organizations to incentivize program participants.
“We want to be a place where our market partners see the value in our stewardship practices here in Colorado, and actually get premiums back to the producer,” Greenberg said.
Adesina, the director of government affairs for Bayer Crop Science, says climate plays an increasingly important role across the industry. Bayer, for example, is deploying digital tools to help farmers identify climate-smart practices and has created a carbon program to incentivize and/or reward farmers for using those practices.
“There’s a mix of voluntary-based incentive programs that the private sector is really focusing on,” she said. “We don’t know where Congress will end up. We don’t know if there will be legislation in this regard. So, it’s something that everyone is starting to give a lot of attention to, because of the shifts in climate, it’s going to impact our ability to feed people.”
At Cargill, Unger says, increasing global population and demand for food drives efforts to produce more food with more sustainable methods. She emphasizes voluntary programs and the importance of collaborating with farmers to develop new practices and techniques.
“We have all of this happening at once, and so the agricultural industry has to evolve with it,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to bring farmers along. We think ag is how we do this.”
Shifting market preferences are also driving alternative products. Cargill is responding to increased demand through plant-based protein powders and meat alternatives, aquaculture and more. “We’ve got to meet people where they are and those changing consumer preferences have certainly impacted us,” Unger said.
As policymakers and agriculture industry leaders respond to land and capital access, workforce shortages and climate change, some features of farming will undoubtedly change. But in some respects, the new agriculture economy will look very much like the old one — demanding, worthwhile, essential work that nourishes people and communities.
“I would encourage Americans to discover local agriculture, to buy American and to simply say ‘thank you’ to our farmers,” Quarles said. “That simple ‘thank you’ at a farmers market — or at a crossroad, when you get stuck behind a tractor going slow — goes a long way.”