Agriculture's Future is in Good Hands
by Jane Sooby
Family farms in Nebraska are raising more than crops and livestockóthey are raising a new generation of bright, hard-working young people who are very aware of the challenges agriculture faces in the 21st century. Their involvement in the family farm has taught them to value diversity in the field and in human nature. Each of these young people has a hard time saying what they want to be when they grow up because the possibilities are so great and their interests are so varied. Getting to know them, learning about how hard they work and exploring their ideas, inspires faith that the future of agriculture is in good hands.
Amy Bates, 17, began working in the family garden when she was 1. She works with her father, Max Bates, growing fruits and vegetables in Anselmo and selling them at the North Platte farmersí market. She is involved in "just about everything, from planting the seeds to picking the produce." Among the things she grows are tomatoes, watermelon, muskmelon, green and jalapeno peppers, kohlrabi, looseleaf head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, cucumbers, carrots, pole beans, sweet corn, chokecherries, and cabbage. No chemicals are used though the produce is not certified organic.
The Bateses emphasize quality over quantity in growing their produce. "Sometimes when we go to the farmersí market, people will say our tomatoes are the most beautiful or they like ours the best," said Amy. "We put a lot of work into it and pride ourselves on having a quality product. We would rather have quality and have repeat customers than have quantity and dissatisfied customers."
Amy gets a sense of satisfaction selling directly to the consumer. "When you sell it to other people, you see more of your work go into it than if you were selling your corn to feed cattle," she said.
Amyís involvement in the produce business has increased as sheís gotten older. She "hated it" when she was younger but now appreciates receiving a paycheck at the end of the month. As a child, Amy was paid an hourly rate for her laborónow she earns 25% of the profits.
Amy likes science and history in school and is active in speech and drama. She also enjoys sports. She likes knowing that she can fall back on the produce business if she needs to but would rather have a different career. She is considering becoming a veterinarian or a forensic scientist and plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
To Amy, sustainable agriculture is "family farming without the chemicals and the big equipment." She feels her familyís operation offers her more opportunities than her friends on conventional farms have because she gets a cut of the profits and gets to socialize with customers at the farmersí market. Sheís noticed that she has more time off than friends who live on conventional farms. Her experience growing produce makes her appreciate more what it takes to put fruits and vegetables out on the grocery store shelves. It has also made her appreciate the taste of home-grown vegetables a lot more.
Amy foresees that family farms will flourish in the future, with more people growing their own vegetables as an alternative to what they can find in the grocery store.
Ben Welsch is 15 and works on his familyís highly diversified organic farm in Milford. He works with machinery, helps plant and cultivate crops, harvests hay, and feeds the animals. He loads chickens to be processed and delivers them to Milford, Crete, Seward, and Lincoln to be sold. The Welsches grow organic soybeans, corn, wheat, oats, and alfalfa and raise chickens, cows, and sheep. Ben has been involved in the chicken operation since he was 6. He began doing "hard field work" when he was 9 or 10.
Ben feels that there are opportunities for anybody who wants to get involved in agriculture, from being a mechanic to being a farmer. He thinks that agricultural work is "fun" and enjoys working with animals. A major difference between him and his friends on conventional farms is, "Weíre not out spraying all the time. Weíre pulling more weeds manually. We can control the weeds pretty good, usually." He also works more with his family and on a smaller scale than kids on conventional farms. He handles chickens instead of larger livestock and operates smaller equipment.
Sustainable agriculture to Ben is "trying to work with the environment to make it better by farming, like using organics, using rotations and terraces and stuff." Itís also hard work, he says: "You have to work hard to get what you want done, to get your soil just right."
Ben plays baseball and basketball and runs track. He works on the computer as much as he can, playing games and seeking out all kinds of information on the Internet, from organic production to sports updates. He likes math and science at school and is involved in FFA. He would like to come back and farm after he has worked at another career for a while, possibly computer programming. His other interests are important to him because, he says, "It might be boring to just farm all the time."
Most of his peers respect Benís involvement in organic farming, though one of the kids in his class complains about it because they have weeds and blame it on organic farmersí lack of weed control. However, Ben said, "Some of them have thought about how organic farming would change their lives. They might see a few more weeds, they might have to go out and pull, but the prices would be better."
For the future of agriculture, Ben sees the number of farmers decreasing and farm size increasing. Heís not sure if there will be more organic farmers or not because "technology is really having an impact on how people farm." He cites Bt corn and Roundup-ready soybeans as examples of this. Though he acknowledges the convenience of these technologies, he doesnít feel he will ever be a conventional farmer.
Paul Demmel farms with his dad Dennis south of Ogallala and also has some agricultural enterprises of his own on the farm. He runs the tractor, does field work, changes over equipment in the shop, walks beans, runs errands, and does other manual labor for his dad. This year, Paul has started a pastured poultry business. He also raises sweet corn and sells it in town. He sells small quantities of hay and straw bales. A large part of his effort has been in marketing. He single-handedly developed a market for the 300 chickens currently in production, most of this by word-of-mouth. Paul has sold sweet corn in town for 4 years now.
Paul is 17 and has worked on the farm since he was a young boy. He feels that the diversity on his familyís farm provides him with more opportunities than kids have on conventional farms. The Demmels grow corn, wheat, sunflowers, and soybeans in rotation. They have two irrigated circles and the rest of their 1500 acres is dryland. Their diverse farm requires "different types of labor" than that done by his friends on conventional farms. "Nobody hardly does that," he commented on the chore of walking beans. The Demmels rely heavily on cultivation to control weeds, including use of a rotary hoe, which most other people donít do. Conventional farmers use herbicides and "We donít do much of that," said Paul. He is the only one in his area raising pastured poultry, as well.
Paul is active in many school activities and is president of the Grant FFA. He likes all his classes except for Spanish and particularly enjoys the independent study ag classes where he is free to research any aspect of agriculture that interests him. This season he is helping coach a Little League baseball team. He thinks he will return to farming some day but said, "I want to go off and do something else first." Engineering, law, and accounting are his top three choices. Paul has also considered following in his motherís footsteps and becoming a doctor.
For Paul, making a living on the farm sums up what sustainable agriculture is. He and his father have talked about using new technology such as Roundup-ready soybeans but they have decided, "If we do a good enough job farming, itís too expensive. You have to pay more for the seed and pay more for the chemical. Itís cheaper to go out in the field with my cousins and finish it off." This also keeps the money in the family to go towards college rather than sending it off to the chemical company.
Regarding agricultureís future, Paul said, "Iíd like to think that itís going toward smaller farms and quality over quantity, but Iím afraid itís just going to be huge operations. It depends on what the consumer wants," said Paul. "If it ever works out that quality will pay off, it will be small farms. But right now it looks like quantity is most important."