Not a ‘pipe dream’: Growing the next generation of Oregon farmers

Special Reports

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part story. In part one, KOIN 6 News examined the increasing age of the American farmer and talked with three farmers about why it’s so hard for young people to break into the industry.

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — The agricultural community knows it has an age problem.

More than 60% of Oregon’s farmland is expected to change hands in the next two decades as farmers retire, according to a 2016 report from Oregon State University. But it’s not clear who will carry on their work feeding the world.

Traditionally, children and grandchildren of farmers take over the farm, but “there is no guarantee that the next generation of those families will want to remain working in agriculture,” according to Oregon Farm Bureau President Barb Iverson.

“It’s critical that Oregon’s farm and ranch families do succession planning and prepare for the next generation of skilled farmers to take over the operation, whether the next generation be within or outside of the family,” Iverson wrote in an email to KOIN 6 News.

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The farm bureau has worked to provide succession workshops to members who might be thinking about retirement. Its Young Farmers & Ranchers program aims to cultivate the next generation, giving them opportunities to learn, network, and build connections with peers.

Nationally, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) touts the “new frontier for science and innovation” and farm-adjacent jobs in fields like biology and robotics.

Agriculture has always been one of the “higher technology-based industries,” according to Marion County farmer Austin Chapin, though many people may not think of it that way.

“We’ve had self-driving tractors, GPS tractors for over 15 years. How many self-driving cars are there?” he asked with a laugh.

Austin Chapin (right) and Leanna Chapin hang out with their sons on the family farm in Marion County (KOIN)

Fourth-generation farmer Evan Kruse agrees. “For agriculture to be viewed as, you know, wearing coveralls and standing out in the field with a hoe, it isn’t the reality,” he said. “It’s a wonderful field of study for people who show good science aptitude.”

However, working on tractors and combines isn’t the same as owning a farm, and if that’s the goal, there’s only one way forward: Get some land.

Leasing can be a promising strategy for beginning farmers and ranchers who need to gain experience and put themselves in a better financial position to qualify for a loan later on, according to OSU’s report “The Future of Oregon’s Agricultural Land.”

When it’s time to buy, some first-time farmers face difficulty securing loans, particularly from traditional lenders. One option the report highlights is Northwest Farm Credit Services’ AgVision program, specifically geared toward those 35-years-old and younger, or who have less than 10 years experience in farming. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency also targets a portion of their loan funds to beginners.

A loan is often the only option for first-generation farmers like Beth Satterwhite. She and her husband currently rent a small plot in Yamhill County but hope to buy a farm of their own soon.

“One of the reasons I love farming is that it’s very real and concrete and what I do every day is visible, and I’m feeding people,” Satterwhite said “I don’t know how to make that translate into a world where a young person trying to buy farmland doesn’t seem like a stupid pipe dream.”

Encouraging “Nobel Prize-winning ideas”

External criticism starts to weigh on young farmers. For Satterwhite, it gets grating when people say farm work doesn’t take any skill, immigrants are “stealing our jobs,” or food is too expensive.

Beth Satterwhite at her farmers market booth in 2018 (Even Pull Farm)

“When you go to a farmer’s market the person selling you your food more than likely either is the farmer or knows the farmer directly,” she said. So when people complain about the price, it’s “deeply personal because we rely on you buying my $2.50 head of lettuce to be able to pay our crew and our bills and maybe buy a farm someday.”

Kruse, who almost let other peoples’ opinions talk him out of his dream job, said society tends to look at doctors and farmers on opposite ends of a spectrum.

“You want the bright people performing brain surgery on you,” he said. “But at the same time, you don’t have brain surgery every day. You better have a good one when you need it, but shouldn’t we need good farmers every day?”

He would like to see the education system stop pushing students in just one direction.

“We have a lot more people to feed in the next few decades, the world population is gonna explode, and we’re gonna need Nobel Prize-winning ideas to accomplish that,” he said.

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