Diversity in farming encouraged, incentives offered

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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Land, capital and training are the three biggest challenges to new farmers, said one panelist from Thursday’s Ag Outlook forum.

Emily Oakley, director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, was one of three young farmers on a panel about the future of agriculture moderated by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

She urged the continuation of Farm Service Administration microloans and the development of farm internship opportunities

The USDA-sponsored Ag Outlook Forum takes place in Arlington, Va., this week with multiple panels and discussions on produce, farmers, markets and other U.S. agribusiness topics. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is following the event live.

During the forum, federal officials emphasized the need for more diversity in farming – younger people, minorities and women, in particular. However, many of the panel speakers and much of the video footage featured non-minority individuals.

Preliminary data from the 2012 Ag Census released Thursday indicate women make up 14 percent of principal operators.

The new census indicates young people in farming (25 to 34 years old) increased slightly from the 2007 census. The age groups from 35 to 54 saw a substantial decrease. The average age of a U.S. farmer is now 58.3 years old.

Michael O’Gorman is executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition, which is headquartered in Davis, Calif. He discussed initiatives to help veterans enter farming and said he wants vets to see agriculture as an opportunity to enter a successful career.

There are many jobs in the industry that are not just self-employed farm ownership, O’Gorman said.

“It isn’t hard getting money. It is hard paying it back,” O’Gorman said in regards to veterans getting financing to enter farming.

He suggested veterans use their disability money to start farming.

A new online system utilizing the Cooperative Extension System was mentioned several times as a means to assist current and new agriculture producers.

The system has developed eXtension to encourage online dialogue and information sharing. This, too, is in line with the Department of Agriculture push to entice younger people to start farming.

"We see online use is generational," said Terry Meisenbach, communications and marketing leader with eXtension. He said younger producers find the online tools useful.

During his questions to the panel, Vilsack posed hypothetical situations in which the group members were advising potential new farmers.

Vilsack distinctively used female pronouns in describing the new recruits. He also asked questions about recruiting urban, presumably non-white youth into the industry.

Vilsack’s questions and word choice reflected the Department of Agriculture's increased attention to issues of diversity.

A brief Department of Agriculture film about the need for the next generation of producers, like the panel on young farmers, lacked noticeable ethnic diversity.

The Ag Forum concludes Friday. Follow @IMidwest and @Sam_Reporting on Twitter for live updates.

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