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COMPREHENSIVE AG EDUCATION: Missouri State University professor Natalie Mook offers pointers to student rider Celeste Swick during AGS 162, Introduction to Riding, one of a wide range of classes offered for students with an interest in agriculture.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
COMPREHENSIVE AG EDUCATION: Missouri State University professor Natalie Mook offers pointers to student rider Celeste Swick during AGS 162, Introduction to Riding, one of a wide range of classes offered for students with an interest in agriculture.

A Hard Row to Hoe: Interest in ag careers is high – but so is pressure on farmers

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Farms are under pressure, and the outlook from the University of Missouri Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute projects further declines in farm income and higher costs for producers.

The 2024 farm outlook, released last month by FAPRI, notes farm commodity prices reached peak levels in spring 2022, but they have since tumbled and that downward pressure is projected to continue beyond 2024. Net farm income, which dropped $30 billion from 2022 to 2023, is projected to continue declining, according to FAPRI.

Crop prices are declining, and profitability is at risk, the FAPRI report stated. For consumers, food price inflation slowed in 2023, another trend that could continue in 2024, the report stated.

Such pressures are business as usual for farmers, according to Nichole Busdieker-Jesse, instructor of agribusiness in Missouri State University’s William H. Darr College of Agriculture.

“It’s important to understand, in agriculture, we always have those ups and downs and arounds when it comes to pricing,” she said. “These are challenging times, but I can’t say that it’s anything really new that we haven’t seen.”

The mix of elevated inflation and interest rates is a combination that hasn’t been seen in a while, Busdieker-Jesse said.

“If you are risk-averse, agriculture is probably not the right industry for you,” she said.

Even so, local interest in agricultural careers is brisk, according to Katie Kensinger, director of college and career readiness for Springfield Public Schools.

Kensinger said within SPS, the college and career readiness platform Naviance identifies career clusters of interest to students, and it has shown 13.5% of ninth- and 10th-graders are interested in agriculture, and 18% of sixth- and seventh-graders.

SPS rises to the occasion, with its AgAcademy, an immersive agricultural program for students in grades four to six, and with high school agriculture education programs at Hillcrest and Glendale high schools. Additionally, seventh-graders can participate in AgVenture, offering four full-day experiences in agriculture, like a tour of the Vital Farms egg washing and packing facility, called Egg Central Station, in Partnership Industrial Center West.

Kensinger said a majority of students enrolled in agricultural education do not come from farm families – not surprising in an urban school district.

And she noted agriculture careers extend well beyond being a farmer.

“Maybe they’re more business focused,” she said. “There are plenty of opportunities for them in the agriculture world in business, marketing and things like that. It’s not just animals; it’s not just plants.”

Nichole Busdieker-Jesse said there are a lot of risk-management tools available to address multiple factors.

“Pricing concerns, income concerns – for all areas of risk, a lot of tools are available,” she said. “It’s just a matter of what works best for your operation in a given situation.”

Family farm future
Jeremy Pendleton, president of the Lawrence County Farm Bureau, is a grain farmer in Stotts City. He acknowledged that now is a difficult time to be a farmer. Grain prices are stagnant, and input prices – the cost of things like seed, chemicals and fertilizer – are soaring.

Pendleton noted last year crops were selling higher, at up to $6.50 per bushel of corn.

“This year, inputs are going to stay high, but we’re looking at selling under $5 for corn,” he said.

Despite the interest expressed by students in the agricultural professions, Pendleton said it would be hard to become a farmer.

“If I were to start from scratch – say I want to farm full time, farm enough to make a living – I’d probably have to borrow $2 million-$3 million,” he said. “Most of that I’d have to pay back in five years.”

Pendleton and his wife, Rachel, have three children. A son is going to graduate from college in three weeks, and a daughter is also enrolled in college; both are studying agriculture, he said. His son plans to return home and work a part-time job while farming on the side, and his daughter is exploring agribusiness.

“Hopefully, she’ll end up on the farm,” he said.

The Pendletons also have a daughter in high school who may also gravitate toward farming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports the average age of all U.S. farm producers is 57.5, and that’s rising. But the (literal) field can be tough to break into, according to Pendleton.

For one, land is getting more expensive, and equipment is too.

“Probably the biggest struggle is to upkeep equipment. You’re at the equipment dealer’s mercy to come and fix stuff, and that gets expensive,” he said.

Acquiring the equipment in the first place is a challenge, too.

“If you went and bought a new tractor right now, it would probably cost you $150,000-$400,000,” he said.

Farming is different than many people might imagine, Pendleton said.

“Tech is just getting better and better every day, and more useful every day, too,” he said. “With all the data management we can do on fields, we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were five years ago.”

Even so, Pendleton said he wouldn’t trade the life.

“If that’s what you want to do, go for it,” he said. “I don’t regret it one bit. It might be tough sometimes, but my wife and I have been farming full time for probably 15 years now, and I wouldn’t change it.”

In the state of Missouri, 27 million acres are devoted to farm operations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s state overview for 2023. That’s almost two-thirds of the 44.2 total acres of land in the state, as reported by the Congressional Research Service.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture reports the state is home to some 88,000 farms averaging 308 acres each – most of them family owned and operated. The state ranks second in the number of farms after Texas.

Across the state, the $93.7 billion agriculture industry employs some 460,000 people, according to current Department of Agriculture figures. The state exports $3.2 billion worth of products each year.

Test-driving the tractor
Maile Auterson, founder and executive director of Springfield Community Gardens, sees a lot of interest in the farming profession, despite economic pressures.

“The very purpose of our federal funding – and state and citywide support – is to alleviate those pressures,” she said.

One pressure is land access, which is especially grievous for underserved communities and people of color.

“Farmers can sell to a developer, or they can sell to a large corporate farming conglomerate for more than a normal person can afford,” she said.

That makes it difficult for people to purchase land to begin farming, but Auterson said Springfield Community Gardens offers education in regenerative agriculture methods that don’t require as much land or as many inputs as conventional commodity farming.

The organization teaches best practices for purchases of inputs like seeds and supplies, and it offers connectivity, with a farmers’ cooperative to share tools, supplies and equipment.

Additionally, it provides markets for products grown locally, such as flower farmers selling to MaMa Jean’s Natural Market.

Additionally, the federal government buys produce from underserved farmers through the Local Food Purchase Assistance program. Through this, Auterson said, Springfield Community Gardens has distributed food to 17 counties through the Community Partnership of the Ozarks Inc.

“Last year alone, we moved over $500,000 in local produce, and that’s a market we’ve helped to create,” she said.

It’s hard to be a farmer, Auterson said, but human-scale methods, like high-tunnel growing, walk-behind tractors and land access through the Springfield Land Trust, offer interested people a way in.

So does the Heartland Regional Food Business Center, which won $22 million to help farmers with business builder grants.

While commodity farmers make only $5 per bushel of corn – less than the price of a family-sized box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes – human-scale farmers can take fresh produce straight to consumers through farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture boxes.

“We are going to see a lot of these small growers,” Auterson said. “We can’t afford to only have these big $2 million operations, and I don’t think it’s good for our own spirit to get that far removed from our environment.”

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