Preparing the Next Generation

“There just aren’t enough kids going into agriculture. We have full FFA classes but the barns are empty.” The farmer was concerned about the future of agriculture. “How do we get young people to choose farming as a career?” he asked me.

“I need an agronomist who can write nutrient management plans,” the co-op manager told me. “Where do I find these people?”

Last week I had the opportunity to speak informally with the board of one of our state-wide farm organizations. The topic turned to a key question in agriculture: How do we help more young people chose agriculture as a career?

We are known nation-wide for our cheese and dairy cows. Most of us are happy to be called cheeseheads and Packer fans. But agriculture related jobs in dairy, crops and meat production are going unfilled.

One of every eight jobs in our state is related to agriculture. While the rest of the economy is sluggish, our agriculture economy is growing.

Consider a few facts:

  • Wisconsin now produces 27% of all cheese in the United States. We produce over 600 varieties of cheese – more than any other nation!
  • Corn and soybeans are at record high prices.
  • Wisconsin leads the United States in organic dairy and livestock production.
  • The value of Wisconsin dairy exports has doubled in two years.
  • Wisconsin dairy farmers have invested $1 billion to modernize facilities in the past five years and plan to invest another $5 billion in the next five years.

With all this progress, one might think our youth would be eager to take advantage of a part of our economy that is vibrant, growing and very diverse. Yet agriculture leaders tell me how difficult it is finding qualified people to fill positions.

This problem is not new. Several years ago a group of visionary agricultural educators joined together and asked DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen for help in developing an Agriculture Education Council. The focus of the Council is to advocate for both agriculture education and workforce development.

The group finally saw the fruits of their labor as Governor Doyle signed into law a bill co-authored by myself and Representative Al Ott (R – Forest Junction). The bill creates the Wisconsin Agriculture and Workforce Development Council.

The new Council brings together people from all across the agriculture community to focus on growing our workforce and preparing youth for a future in agriculture. The Council is funded entirely with private donations but it is administered by DATCP.

Watching trends in agriculture; studying future opportunities; looking for ways to teach and encourage youth in choosing a career in agriculture; finding and removing obstacles to beginning farming; recommending policy to achieve our goal of growing our agriculture workforce – these are all tasks of the new Council. Signing the bill into law is just the beginning of this important work.

But working on this legislation has been a lesson for me in how to get things done. Many people came together to create the legislation and advocate for its passage. The work happened over many years and involved people all over the state. I am especially grateful for the help of our Assembly Agriculture Committee Chair, Representative Ott and his hard working staff member Erin Ruby, who have now seen the results of many years of efforts.

Filling the jobs in agriculture with well trained and enthusiastic young people may continue to be a challenge, but now we have a group dedicated to the job of thinking about this issue every day.  We have a Council empowered to act to solve the workforce problems we face in agriculture.

Have ideas on how to grow our agriculture workforce? Let me know! Call my office in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov .