I’ve been involved in many behind the scenes work on the issues of swine facilities in rural communities. As I’ve worked with various public policy groups and ag commodity groups, there are 2 statements that often arise as we discuss opportunities for youth to return to agriculture. The following is my reply to these common statements.
Statement 1 – When I retire and stay on the farm, I have a right to expect clean air and no odor.
In the past, when a farm couple retired, they generally moved to town. Increasingly retired couples are choosing to rent out their land and remain on the farm – often for many years following retirement from active agriculture.
At first glance it seems logical for this couple to expect a quality of life in retirement on the farm. However, this expectation places limits on the rural community that weren’t there when they began their careers in agriculture. When their careers began in agriculture, it is most likely that animals were part of their start-up. That is, to begin their career in agriculture they had some cows or pigs or ???, often in conjunction with dad or other family member. Their house and farmstead ‘smelled’ like a farm, especially on rainy days or days when it was time clean lots or facilities. Odors associated with animal agriculture were a part of the rural character. One of the reasons for moving to town at retirement was to ‘escape’ these odors.
The expectation of no offensive odors (whether from animal ag or other sources) means an expectation of a declining rural community. This expectation results in fewer neighbors, and less long term changes in the neighborhood. While not all change is good, the expectation of no change in a changing world is an expectation of slow death – exactly what is happening in rural communities.
To have an expectation of a rural community without animal agriculture in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and S Dakota is to have an expectation that the rural community will slowly die. Yes, you would like to retire on the farm, but if you expect to have a strong agricultural community in the next decade(s), this retirement must be accompanied by a willingness to accept animal ag and a realization that there will be occasions when animal ag, in spite of it’s best efforts, will impact you. If everyone in rural communities has an expectation of no negative impacts from animal ag at any time, then the expectation has to include the realization of the consequences. Yes, there are concerns regarding the size of some animal production facilities and concerns regarding their impacts on water quality. However, if both production facility developers and rural citizens approach the issues with a recognition that animal agriculture contributes to the economic well being of the community, satisfactory solutions to many of the concerns of both parties can be achieved.
Statement 2 – I don’t understand why youth don’t want to return to my community or I don’t understand why youth want it all when they start farming.
To respond to this one, we need to think about the change in expectations and opportunities from our parents/grandparents generation to our generation. Even as late as the early 1960’s agriculture was the goal of many rural youths. In the 40’s, less than 50% of all youth graduated from high school – many didn’t even make it to 8th grade. By the 60’s, rural communities achieved a very high graduation rate and still rank among the highest in all of the US. Increasingly parents pushed their children to obtain a college degree. For many, the goal was to have employment experience ‘in the real world’ before returning to the rural community and a career in agriculture. In fact, this ‘real world’ experience changed the expectations for the next generation.
In the past, beginning a career in agriculture meant living in the ‘old’ house till mom and dad retired to town. It meant financial sacrifice and long hours. With ‘real world’ experiences, beginning a career in agriculture is different now. Youth returning to agriculture have a college degree and the knowledge that if farming doesn’t work out, they have other opportunities.
With these opportunities comes less willingness to sacrifice. A young wife can be heard to say ‘why do we need to live like this when you can get a salaried job with your degree?’ This translates into the need for $35-45,000 in after tax income for family living expenses in order for the family to return to a rural community.
As a result of the educational opportunities our parents provided, we have changed our expectations for success in agriculture. These changing expectations mean we need larger farm operations to begin with. One number several ag lenders have used with me is it takes $300,000 in gross revenue per family unit for a family to be successful in northeast Nebraska in agriculture full-time. I’m sure this number is even higher today given the very large increase in input costs and most likely is nearer to $400,000+. If we place restrictions on the types of agriculture we allow in our rural communities, we place restrictions on the number of people who will return to our rural communities in agriculture.