Changing the Field: Young Farmers Tackle Today’s Challenges to Grow the Future of Agriculture

Aug 28, 2023

By Allison Jenkins

If it weren’t for an FFA dodgeball game during middle school, Tanner Johnson may have never become a farmer.

“I didn’t have any interest in farming, but there were fun kids in FFA,” Johnson says of the Future Farmers of America program. “I went for dodgeball, stayed for the meeting, got the jacket and continued to be involved through college. It connected me with wonderful, like-minded people and really opened my eyes to what agriculture had in store for me.”

Admittedly, the now 29-year-old says his journey has been nontraditional. He didn’t grow up on a farm. He didn’t have a family operation to join. But he had an outgoing personality, a desire to lead and a determination to make a career in an industry he had grown to love. While in college at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Johnson connected with farmer and agribusinessman Andy Bensend, and now he helps with managing the production of food-grade soybeans, corn, winter wheat, alfalfa and cover crops on Bensend’s farm in northwest Wisconsin.

Tanner Johnson , who didn’t grow up on a farm, says it’s imperative for new farmers to have an advantage, like a mentor or someone to take them under their wing.

“Getting into farming specifically as a young person, you have to have an advantage,” says Johnson, who married his wife, Brittany, in February. “You have to have parents or relatives or a mentor who’s willing to give you that advantage. Otherwise, you’re just not in a position to compete with existing farmers.”

Johnson is not alone. Across the country, young and beginning farmers confront the challenge of successfully making their way into agriculture. The obstacles are many—access to land, operating capital, technical knowledge and support, adequate labor and insurance, not to mention dealing with high input costs, soaring interest rates, equipment shortages, family succession plans and inheritance taxes. Those determined to farm, however, are finding ways to break these barriers.

“I truly believe every challenge is an opportunity. To complain really doesn’t do any good because that’s just wasted effort,” says Johnson, who, in addition to farming, owns a seed dealership and agronomy consulting business. “The younger generation often has a negative reputation, whether it’s deserved or not, but those of us in agriculture have ambition and dedication to make our own path forward.”

Johnson is among several producers aged 40 or younger currently serving on the American Soybean Association board, all with varying backgrounds but facing many of the same challenges. Land is often at the top of the list—a sentiment confirmed by 2022 National Young Farmers Coalition survey respondents who said acquiring affordable land is the greatest impediment to a farming career.

Land, legacy, leadership

“Land isn’t getting any cheaper, and it’s not getting any easier to buy,” says Jordan Scott, a South Dakota row crop producer who raises soybeans and corn with his father, Kevin, on about 1,300 acres. “But we need land to produce our products. It’s pretty hard for a young farmer with no equity to go buy a million-dollar piece of land. That’s one of the main challenges we face.”

Although he took a circuitous path through several non-ag jobs—most recently selling jewelry—the 37-year-old is now farming full time, carrying on a legacy built by both sides of his family. He’s the fourth generation on his mother’s side and fifth generation on his father’s. Scott says he values the influence and wisdom of these previous generations, but he also recognizes the need to infuse the family operation with new perspectives and experiences. For example, two years ago he started a YouTube channel, Scott Family Farms, to document their work on the farm and “shed light on the ever-changing world of agriculture.”

For Jordan Scott, involvement in policy advocacy isn’t just a family tradition, vital to influencing decisions that impact his family farm.

Such educational efforts also extend to Scott’s leadership on both the South Dakota Soybean Association board of directors and now as an ASA director. This, too, is a family tradition. His father recently finished his own tenure as chairman and before that, president, of ASA.

“I think it’s important to be involved in policies and decisions that will affect our farm, not only for me, but for my family as well,” Scott says, referring to his wife, Samantha, and their sons, Dane and Lincoln. “That’s the same reason my dad did it. He was trying to keep us sustainable so he could pass on the farm. We have to keep advocating for the things we need. There’s a saying that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. I want to be at the table.”

Advocating and storytelling

Advocacy is also a passion for Heather Feuerstein, current president of the Michigan Soybean Association, who farms in western Michigan with her husband, Greg, a fourth-generation farmer. Heather, whose parents both had military careers, got her introduction to agriculture when she and Greg began dating during their junior year of high school. They now have two children, Oliver and Eleanor, and raise soybeans, corn, wheat and cattle.

Now fully immersed in a farming lifestyle, 40-year-old Feuerstein admits her non-ag background can often feel like a challenge. But, as an agricultural advocate and ASA director, she says it helps her bridge the gap between consumers and producers. Feuerstein’s advocacy efforts have included contributing to the blog, Farm Fresh Food, sponsored by the Michigan Ag Council; traveling around the state to “Breakfast on the Farm” events, where she was able to teach people about the uses of soy in their daily lives; and meeting with the nation’s leaders to share the policy needs of farmers.

Heather Feuerstein says while her non-ag background can often feel like a challenge, it helps her bridge the gap between consumers and producers.

“Being on the farm is a learning experience for me every day, but it’s just been an absolute joy,” Feuerstein says. “The people in agriculture are some of the best people out there, and it’s part of the reason why I joined the soybean associations, both state and national. In our house, my husband’s the farmer, and I feel like I’m the storyteller. If young farmers are not telling their stories, somebody else is going to tell them—and we may not like what we hear.”

Young farmer’s voice

Central Louisiana farmer Luke Sayes would agree that sharing the farmer’s voice truly does make a difference in opinion and policy. For example, recent advocacy efforts of the Louisiana Cotton and Grain Association, of which Sayes serves as first vice president, helped get legislation passed to require state training for grain graders to help reduce discrepancies in quality assessments at the elevator.

“Congressmen and women want to see and hear from the farmers. Our voices weigh so much more heavily than even the best lobbyists,” says the 37-year-old, who also serves as an ASA director. “It’s important those voices include young farmers. We have completely different conversations than our dads and grandads did. We think about things differently, see things differently, face different challenges. Don’t get me wrong. We need that group of elders to learn from, but we need the perspective of the young folks, too.”

Sayes grows soybeans and corn in the Red River Valley, where he and his wife, Kayla, are raising two daughters, Chandler and Lauralee. Though he comes from a three-generation farm, Sayes didn’t have the opportunity to join his father, Larry, in the operation at first. To get started after college, the younger Sayes rented some “really bad ground,” using variable-rate technology and no-till practices to transform it into a productive farm. He later acquired more land, at one point farming about 7,000 acres that included cotton, rice and sorghum. This year, he scaled back to about 3,000 acres, taking over the family operation from his retiring father.

For Sayes, the biggest challenges of farming in this region have been hurricanes, extreme flooding and the labor-intensive task of grading ground and installing furrow irrigation. Land and financing haven’t been huge obstacles, he adds, but he realizes that’s not the case for many.

“I would say for anybody wanting to farm, go find a job with a farmer and learn the ropes. If your family farm is too small to carve your way into it, then go work for another guy first,” he says. “I wish there was a young, capable person with a moldable mind who I could teach to help me on the farm. That would be the Holy Grail when it comes to farm labor.”

Luke Sayes says young farmers add an important new perspective to facing challenges and influencing ag policy.

Connections and creativity

Having better access to operating capital through USDA loans or private financing programs is also an urgent need for new farmers, Feuerstein says. She and Greg count themselves fortunate to have “exceptional” Farm Service Agency personnel who have been a tremendous help in building their operation.

“Young farmers need access to a really good loan officer who knows the ins and outs of your farm,” Feuerstein says. “That’s what really worked well for us. Farming is a scary industry to be operating in, especially when you’re new or don’t have a legacy of paid-off land and equipment, but I don’t think there’s a better way of life. The work ethic, the morals and the feeling of being connected to the land and the community just breed a different kind of person.”

Despite the challenges and risks, Tanner Johnson says the future is full of opportunity for young farmers, but only if they get creative and take charge of their own destiny. He believes this age of rapidly advancing technology will help.

“If we want to have a future in agriculture, we’re going to have to make that opportunity ourselves,” Johnson says. “Young people have an advantage that doesn’t get talked about that much. We don’t have to rely on someone else to teach us everything. We can learn whatever we want at the touch of our fingertips. That’s a tool we need to do a better job of utilizing, and it’s something that no other generation had before us.”