University program in Texas seeks to produce future farmers

Kaysi LaPoint visited the farm owned by her extended family in Lamar, Colorado when she was a child. They grew wheat and milo and raised cattle, and she loved “every minute she spent in the land” and learned the ins and outs of farming along the way.

“This genuine love and joy of being involved in farming has never left me,” she said via email.

LaPoint, a junior at West Texas A&M University who studies animal science and agricultural business and economics, now heads the first academic chapter of the Texas Farm Bureau, a membership organization that advocates on behalf of farmers in the ‘State. His group is part of an ongoing pilot program called the Texas Collegiate Farm Bureau, a network of campus chapters dedicated to building a community of students interested in farming, promoting agricultural education and the deepening of students’ knowledge of the industry.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents farm offices across the country, has about 118 Collegiate Farm Bureau chapters in 35 states, but this is the first time the program has taken root in Texas, with two initial chapters. West Texas A&M, located in the Texas Panhandle, launched its chapter in fall 2020, and Sam Houston State University in Huntsville followed in spring 2021. Midwestern State University, Tarleton State University, and Vernon College also plan to launch chapters, according to the Texas Agricultural Bureau.

Whit Weems, organization director for the Texas Farm Bureau, said the organization started the initiative because it wanted to do more targeted outreach and provide more support to students interested in farming.

“We just wanted to continue to strengthen that relationship with this audience and be able to provide them with opportunities to continue to develop their leadership skills, to continue to develop a lot of the things these students were already doing from an advocacy perspective… and just create this network of students across the state where they could interact with each other and all have some kind of common ground or a common mission, ”he said.

The number of American farms has been declining for decades. The US Department of Agriculture estimates there were 2.2 million farms in the United States in 2020, down 4,400 farms from the previous year. Almost 98% of U.S. farms were family owned in 2019, and most of them were small. Non-family farms produce 12 percent of agricultural products, while they represent only 2 percent of US farms, and they dominate the beef industry and the production of “high-value crops” such as fruits, vegetables. and nuts, alongside large family farms, according to the USDA. Meanwhile, only 2 percent of Americans work in the agriculture industry.

“Texas is very rich in agricultural production,” said Nate Wolf, assistant professor of agricultural education and leadership at West Texas A&M and educational advisor for the Collegiate Farm Bureau chapter on campus. “While many of our older producers on farms and ranches are retiring, the younger generation or their children are no longer returning to the farm. They find other jobs elsewhere – they find other jobs, other businesses, other homes… The vision is to see more young farmers and ranchers enter production agriculture so that we can help to feed the nation.

David Townsend, deputy director of membership engagement at the American Farm Bureau Federation, pointed out that the average age of an American farmer is around 57, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. He has said one of the goals of the program is to “bring youth and life” to farms and ranches in communities where students live, in addition to giving students the opportunity to network with more experienced farmers.

“The decline in the number of farmers and ranchers in America shows the need for more people to get involved” in the agriculture industry, he said.

As part of the program, each chapter will engage in education and advocacy for agriculture in their communities, with $ 750 in seed funds from the Texas Farm Bureau. Students attending campus chapters will also be able to attend the American Farm Bureau’s annual convention and the Texas Young Farmer & Rancher conference which is held each spring, where they have a “collegiate discussion meeting,” a debate competition. on American agriculture.

The program “really gives them the opportunity to have a local presence where they can elect officers at the local level. They can start to develop some kind of agenda and a mission of what they want to accomplish locally to do things within their school, ”Weems said.

LaPoint hopes to set up booths around campus and the wider community and distribute leaflets with facts about agriculture. Jerin Milam, president of the Sam Houston State Chapter, said she wanted to organize trips to local farms and ranches and visit elementary schools to teach agriculture to students.

Milam, who specializes in agricultural communications, believes that young people have “an extreme lack of education” about agriculture. Her mother taught agriculture in high school when she was growing up, and she remembers hearing that some students thought the eggs were from cows because they were in the same aisle as the milk at the grocery store. .

“There is a lack of interest because they don’t have to worry about where their food comes from,” she said. “They know that if they go home, it will be in the pantry or in their refrigerator.

LaPoint agreed that many of his peers are “ignorant” about the industry.

“It seems that with each new generation, the link with agriculture weakens,” she said. “If you talk to your grandparents or great-grandparents, it seems that everyone has a farmer or rancher as a close relative. Yet, as time passes, we are further and further removed from the generations where each person was closely related to [agriculture]. As a result, people really don’t understand the scope of agriculture, all that it provides, and the steps to get there. “

She thinks the Texas Collegiate Farm Bureau can help change that narrative.

“I hope that the students will gain additional knowledge about agriculture, discover the challenges that agriculture faces, how to fight and overcome them, and act in an efficient and professional manner,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people in my age group who could be involved in farming, but they aren’t.”

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