LIMA — As the current population of farmers age, there’s a big need for a younger generation to step up and take over.
Jeremy Heitz, 23, of rural Wapakoneta in Auglaize County, is one of those young farmers that’s taken on the challenge. He helps farm corn, soybeans and wheat for his father.
“I work full-time on the family farm. In 2013 I bought my first farm. I own some equipment on the farm. I’ve been driving tractor since I was five,” Heitz said.
The lure of life on the farm and the freedom it offers is something Heitz longs for.
“I guess I just grew up doing it and [I like] being my own boss basically, not being stuck in an office. I’m more of a hands-on type of person. I would rather be out doing something,” he said.
When the time comes, he’ll take on a bigger role on the farm.
“It’s me and I have three sisters, and so it will stay in the family between all four of us,” he said.
Farming is an important career, but it’s not for everyone.
“They have to first know what they’re getting themselves into, the long hours and making it work and a lot of people think you get to go out and work in the field and drive tractors all days long but they don’t understand the amount of paperwork and all kind of other behind the scenes stuff we get to do,” Heitz said.
Heitz says any young person considering farming needs to have an independent streak.
“I guess it’s all the experience and being your own boss. You don’t have to play by somebody else’s rules. If you’re in a factory job, you’re doing the same things over and over, where here, you have so many different things. No day is really the same,” he said.
Heitz was involved in FFA in high school and then did two years at the University of Northwestern Ohio studying ag business.
Farming not as attractive to some as a career
Jeff Stachler is an extension educator for agriculture and natural resources for Ohio State University and has offices in Auglaize County.
He’s seeing potential problems with today’s farmers getting older.
“The population is aging, obviously, so we need to try to get more people involved in the farming aspects in our county. I know we got some new younger generations coming into the farm, but that’s not the majority of the farms. We obviously still have plenty of space for young people to come in on the farm and in some cases we don’t have children interested in returning to the farm and that makes it difficult to transition into that arena,” Stachler said.
Breaking down barriers for young farmers
Barriers exist to keeping young people out of farming, especially if their family isn’t always involved in that line of work. Having to start from scratch is nearly impossible.
“That day is pretty much gone. The best thing you could do is have somebody that’s willing to mentor you and transition the farm over time. That’s the best you could hope for at this point in time. You certainly just can’t go and start your own farm by yourself. The one opportunity would be if you’re going to do it on a small scale and it’s some special niche market you’re trying go after, then, there is some hope that you can make it work,” Stachler said.
The biggest hurdle young farmers need to overcome is how expensive it is for equipment and the purchase of acreage.
“Certainly the amount of money it takes to get involved with farming. That’s the biggest hurdle that you have but then you’re going to have to understand you’re going to need to be more knowledgeable especially with technology. Technology is far and away beyond what it used to be just even ten years ago, so needing to understand how equipment operates from a technology standpoint and all of the other technologies that we have with in the agriculture arena as far as growing both crops and livestock,” Stachler stated.
Extension office can help
The Ohio State University Extension has started a Small Farm College program, according to Stachler. Last year, it was held at OSU Lima.
“That’s a nice program the extension offers on the state level. There’s just one class being offered in the southern part of the state this year. That’s our best effort from an extension standpoint at the state level that we’re offering. Obviously, you can get individual help within each individual county to provide some expertise and assistance in getting started. But that Small Farm College has been really good, helping people get started on a small scale and trying to get them to think about niche markets so that they can have a higher dollar value return to make it go and getting started,” he said.
Some niche market examples include “farm to table, organic would be another one, special meats, special breeds, some of these heritage breeds for livestock [and] growing livestock in a more organic natural way. So those are some of the ways. There certainly were some people in that group a year ago that were going to get into vegetable production or Christmas trees or tree nuts like walnuts, but that’s a long time until you get return on your investment,” he said.
Younger generation of farmers seen in Hardin County
The OSU Extension educator in Hardin County is Mark Badertscher. He is also seeing evidence that a younger generation is getting ready to take over farming duties.
“We’ve seen a lot of the older generation getting ready to start handing down the farm to the younger generation. We’ve been thinking this is going to happen and, with our latest fertilizer certifications that we did in the last three years, we noticed a lot of younger people that were coming to the training instead of their fathers,” Badertscher said. “Some of them would say, ‘Dad told me it’s time for me to take over the certifications for the farm’, so that’s kind of a signal that they’re trying to pass down the operation to the son or daughter. Another way…we’re starting to get a lot of interest in young people that are not only involved in the fertilizer certification I was talking about, but have been calling our office and asking for help with preparing for the pesticide exams. Farmers who use restricted use pesticides such as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides have to be certified. You have to have at one person from the farm [be certified], same way with the fertilizer, and so these younger people are wanting to get certified for the first time. So because of that, we are offering new pesticide applicator training to help prepare these new applicators to take the test that they have to pass with the Ohio Department of Agriculture,” he said.
Farm succession workshops are being offered
“We’ve been offering a lot of farm succession programs so there’s a right way and a wrong way [to transition a farm to a younger family member],” Badertscher said. “If the parents are going to pass down the farm to other family members, they go through the legal aspects of it as well as the other decisions that must be made, and the Extension is sponsoring several farm succession workshops around the state. We’ve got a couple that Ag Credit is putting on in Wyandot County, and there was one in Union County. On Feb. 27, there’s going to be a farm succession workshop at the Master’s Building at the Wyandot County Fairgrounds.”
Ohio Farm Bureau offering incentives for young farmers
High school students looking for a potential career in agriculture could benefit from the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation’s Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning. The goal is to introduce students to and prepare them for careers in agriculture.
“So the Fisher Fund is named after Jack Fisher. He was the Ohio Farm Bureau’s executive vice president for 20 years and Jack has always been been very involved in what we sometimes call succession planning. Through the Fisher Fund, the idea is to find different ways to introduce agriculture as a career to young people and then give them exposure to it,” said Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau.
The Fisher Fund’s signature project is the ExploreAg program, which will be launched this summer. Fifty high school freshmen and sophomores will be chosen through a competitive process to spend two weeks on a college campus for an introduction to agriculture as well as hands-on learning. Internationally known teachers, scientists and researchers will expose them to food science, precision agriculture, animal science, natural resources, management skills, technology and agricultural business. Along with classroom experience, the students will participate in field experiences that highlight cutting-edge research and will interact with industry partners to learn about possible careers in related fields.
The first year of the program will take place on Ohio State University’s main campus and at its Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster and is completely free for students.
To learn more about the Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning and other Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation programs visit fb.org/foundation.
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.