Next generation of farmers in already at work in state FFA, college and Extension programs

By Tom Hallman

Brooke Shelton of Cleveland, Ga., readies her animal for competition in the Clemson University Spring Dairy Show Feb. 28, 2014 at the T. Ed Garrison Livestock Arena in Pendleton. The annual show involves registered Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss breeds as well as showmanship competition for 4-H and FFA students.Before you can grow a crop, you have to plant the seed.

That’s as true of South Carolina’s crop of new farmers as it is the commodities their farms produce.

"We have to prepare new farmers to take the torch from previous generations," said Dave Lamie, an associate professor and Extension specialist in agribusiness in the Clemson University Institute for Economic and Community Development at the Sandhill Research and Education Center near Columbia.

"The nation’s farm population is aging and fewer people are growing up in rural areas with farming experience," said Lamie, who directs the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmer Program. "Preparing the new crop of farmers to be successful is essential both to our food supply and to the state’s economy."

The South Carolina Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture and forestry combine to generate more than $34 billion a year in the state economy. But the most recent census from the National Agricultural Statistics Service lists the average age of South Carolina farmers at 59, higher than the national average by a year.

Just 11 percent of South Carolina farmers are under the age of 45. Nationally, there are five times as many farmers aged 75 or older than there are farmers 25 or younger.

"Agriculture has changed radically during the lives of today’s farmers, and we’ve re-tooled our research and education programs to meet those changes," said George Askew, associate vice president for Public Service and Agriculture at Clemson. "When a farmer retires, he takes with him valuable experience. New farmers have to learn a lot in a short time. That’s why we’re reaching out with programs specifically for emerging farmers and start-up agribusinesses."

With that much on the line, it helps to start early. In Honea Path, straddling Abbeville and Anderson counties, the future of farming goes to school every day.

"We have a diversified program that exposes students to many different sides of agriculture," said Glenn Stevens, an agricultural education teacher at Belton-Honea Path High School who leads the Future Farmers of America chapter there. "More than half our students will go on to higher education in agriculture or a related field," Stevens said. "We’re trying to expose them to the many different opportunities in agriculture and give them skills that will be important in the job market."

Many FFA students will enter traditional agriculture degree programs at Clemson. Some will pursue a new degree program, just begun this fall, specifically for agribusiness.

Not all new farmers come from high school and college ranks, however.

"There’s no age limit on entering agriculture. In addition to young people entering the profession, we have a lot of adults who are looking at agriculture as a second career or as a retirement strategy. A number of them are looking to take advantage of increasing opportunities to create new markets for locally grown food," Lamie said.

"At whatever stage they enter the business, it’s important to enter prepared, and it’s important to our state that we keep agriculture productive” he said. "Our goal is to prepare the next generation of South Carolina farmers to be as successful as the one before them.”

Learn more about the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmers Program: