By Becky Nelson
I had the great honor of sharing a “stage” on a panel with three older farmers at the Sullivan County Farm Bureau annual meeting the other night. Sullivan County is the birthplace of the Farm Bureau, which has grown to a national number of almost 6 million members. Not all members are farmers, but all support the efforts of the agricultural community. I am a very proud member of the organization, which with modest annual membership fees manages to keep a finger on the pulse of local, state and national politics and legislation and represents the tiny minority of farming folks in all manner of legislative action that will affect farms, ranches, woodlands and open land of any type. They work with organizations to offer benefits to the membership in buying equipment, travel, insurance and a host of other ways. I am proud to be a member.
All that pride aside, I was humbled by the experienced farmers with whom I shared our story and our farm experiences through the decades. The panel consisted of myself (representing my mother and late father), Gordon Gowen of Alstead, Jolyon Johnson of Sunapee and Steve Taylor of Meriden. Our stories were all very different but carried the same theme that there is no better life or lifestyle for those bitten by the farming bug or living in the shadow of generations past who loved the land as much as we do.
All three of my fellow panel members were or still are dairy farmers. My father was a dairy farmer growing up and had cows on the farm all during his life even as we transitioned to vegetable and fruit production and we raise cattle on the farm again. Three of us held or hold off-farm jobs to help support our families, and the struggles of farming were discussed. The huge expenses of buying a farm, carrying a line of credit for equipment purchases, feed, seeds and supplies and the extensive demands for a farmer to have a firm business sense and background were themes that continually entered the conversation. The ability to adapt and change were also evident. Many dairy farms have closed or are poised to shut the barn doors after years of slumped milk prices, so the need is evident to change, diversify and enter new markets.
The image of farming as a dirty or low-income job being done by uneducated folks has somehow plagued the farming industry for decades. However, all four of us on the panel hold college degrees as do the next generations coming into our farm operations. Farming is a very demanding career, even if it is the second career on a part-time farm. Not only do we farmers have to be experts in our particular fields of agriculture, have a good understanding of marketing and promotion, be good business people with expertise in financial matters, be comfortable with machinery, engineering, construction and technology, but we also have to be active learners. Rapid changes in farming techniques, technology, climate and all factors that affect farming will leave you in the dust or drowning if you are not aware and able to adapt.
The average age on the stage was well over 70 years old, and in the room was probably older than the national average age of farmers today, over 59 years of age. That is the scary part of the picture. Young farmers are few and far between. The long days, weeks and months, the little time off and sometimes low end of the income scale are not attractive to many. We are all individually trying to do our best to attract younger folks to the farming fraternity, but the hurdles are high. We need to band together and get the younger folks interested.
We were honored at the dinner to have a couple of enthusiastic young farmers address the group and a young gentleman from Newport, CJ Howe, address the group about his involvement in FFA (Future Farmers of America) and nomination for national office in the organization of high-school age students poised to become future farmers and agriculture related careers. Newport hosts a chapter of the FFA at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center under the mentorship of advisors/teachers Deb Stevens and Sam Nelson. Fall Mountain also holds an FFA chapter. We need to support the efforts of these chapters to reach for the stars in the agricultural world.
The highlights of the panel: a lot has changed in farming. Dairy laid the groundwork in New England for all agricultural enterprises still working soil in the Granite State. A lot needs to change in farming. We need to educate the public about the importance of the folks that put food on the table, adapt to changes around us and need to attract young folks to the field to make that food. We need to plant seeds of change.