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Putting a personal face on our farming crisis
By Matt Huie
My grandparents’ children left the farm in pursuit of city jobs, but I loved everything about that life. So when I got the opportunity to move in with my grandparents at age 16, I didn’t hesitate.
After college, I made the decision to become a full-time farmer. Today, I live on a ranch about a mile from my grandfather -- who is still operating part of his cattle ranch at 89 -- and hope to be able to one day pass on the skills that he passed on to me.
But many farm families are unable to compete with the lure of the city and are finding it harder to locate that member of the next generation willing and able to bear the torch. Without a new generation of farmers stepping forward, the world’s food supply, and Texas’ economy, will be challenged.
The average age of farmers in America is 58, the oldest at any time in our country’s history. Assuming most Americans retire at 65, that puts us about seven years away from real problems unless more young people shun lucrative desk jobs for riskier, and often lower-paying, jobs on farms, and ranches.
It sounds scary, and it is. But the idea of investing a future in farming is equally as scary for most young people. The expense of raising crops and cattle, the high risks faced every day, and the low returns on investment, is enough to make anyone run in the other, more secure direction.
Further, the amount of capital needed to get a farm or ranch operation off the ground is staggering. We borrow more money each year to cash flow our operations than most Americans borrow in a lifetime. Here in Texas, some cotton farmers spend $600,000 for a single piece of equipment. That’s just one machine -- it doesn’t even take into account land costs, fuel costs, seed costs, and labor costs needed to grow a crop.
Because of the many challenges, all young farmers depend on components contained in the 2008 Farm Bill -- most notably crop insurance -- to provide lenders with the confidence and collateral they need to extend loans. Politicians continue to put these components to the test, even though without crop insurance, farmers throughout the South, Midwest, and various other parts of the country, would have been left with no crop -- and no starting point on which to rebuild -- due to the range of floods, droughts, tornadoes, and frosts, this year alone.
As Congress and the White House wrestle with the budget, rural America continues to show up on the chopping block, despite the gaping holes that have been cut in our farm policy -- to the tune of $12 billion since 2008 -- a considerable amount considering farm policy accounts for less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget.
A few months ago, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, called upon our political leaders to “hold the thin green line.” He was referring to the 210,000 remaining full-time farmers and ranchers in America, and the need to strengthen instead of weaken this force that protects our food and fiber supply and national security.
If 210,000 sounds like a big number to you, he said, consider this: more people walk through Walmart’s doors every 21 minutes to buy food and clothes, than there are people producing the food and fiber to stock the shelves.
Now is not the time to create barriers at the starting point of farming and ranching. Now is the time to welcome young people back to their rural roots by providing them with a farm policy that they, and their bankers, can count on.
Matt Huie is a 35-year-old farmer from Beeville who raises cotton, corn, sorghum, and livestock.
Editor’s note: Reprinted by permission by “The Hand That Feeds U.S.” For more information, visit http://www.thehandthatfeedsus.org/index.cfm.
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