A recent study published in Rangelands, a Society for Range Management publication, predicted that there will be no farmers or ranchers under age 35 by the year 2033 (Full text of the article “Wyoming’s aging agricultural landscape: Demographic trends among farm and ranch operators, 1920–2007,” Rangelands, Vol. 36, No. 6, 2014). This drab outlook also predicts that the average age of farm and ranch operators will be 60 by age 2050. While this study only looked at Wyoming, it does show some alarming trends. In their review of census data, they discovered that almost all counties trended toward a decrease in operators aged 34 or younger and a majority of counties also showed a drop in farmers and ranchers aged 35-54. Historically, half of our population’s work force was employed by family farms. Currently, less than 2% of our work force is employed on United States farms and ranches. While this shift has a lot to do with advances in technology, there is a point where ranches and farms will have to look at different ways to attract young people to our industry.
I, along with a couple of other ranchers, recently had the opportunity to speak with a couple of university students about this very topic. Both of these young ladies were very interested in what we thought of this prediction. We articulated our optimism that the future was bright for young people in agriculture and that this scenario would never come to fruition. We had no data to back up our assertions and we moved on to the next questions. The more I reflect on this question, the more I realize that those of us currently in the industry really need to address this.
The youngest population segment in the United States are the Millennials (young people born after 1981). Millennials make up the largest segment of the population, outnumbering baby boomers by 11 million. This is the population we are targeting as taking over our place in the industry. I am not sure that this generation is really much different than mine, but there are definitely some stereotypes that marketers would like to assign to this group. Data shows that they are living in a much more diverse America (43% are non-white vs. baby boomers who are 72% white) and may view race differently than their predecessors. They are the most educated generation, however, the majority are still undereducated and underemployed. They are not marrying as young as previous generations, if they marry at all. Despite all of these statistics, I still see an abundance of young people working on ranches, wanting to work on ranches and learning how to work with livestock. In our work with high school and university students, there is always a student or two who asks to come back and help. In fact, we had an archaeology group come out and one student offered to feed or do whatever was needed. There is a natural human tendency to be drawn to animals and to want to be around them. While data shows a change in the average demographic, I still see many young people who are entering the ranch and farm work force who share the same values, work ethic and desires as older generations.
My skills as a cowboy certainly leave a lot to be desired. No one will ever describe me as “punchy”, and that’s ok. Sure, I ride regularly, can rope a little and accomplish all of the tasks that are required on a ranch. In fact, I have “day worked” on other ranches from time to time and get by at my skill level. I also know I need to get better at all of them. In my defense, I have developed some skills that are different than some of my peers. One of the arenas (pun intended) that I have spent some time working in is stockmanship and stewardship. Curt Pate, Ron Gill and Todd McCartney are the current generation of cattle handling experts that I am fortunate to learn from. They have shown me a different way to handle my cattle that is lower stress on them and myself. It’s funny that a lot of the principles that they teach cattle producers all over the world are the same ones my father taught me as I grew up.
Tomorrow’s “cowboy” will be different than yesterday’s cowboy. While there will always be a place for the traditional ranch employee that just rides and ropes, he or she will have to have some other skills in their tool box. They will look, act, dress, think and be different than the generation that proceeded them. A “cowboy” in 2050 will be better educated, have more knowledge resources and will deal with different challenges than we currently have. While some of my peers lament the “last of a dying breed”, I remain optimistic that new and better “cowboys” are in the pipeline and will take our place. As the current generation, we have to be accepting of them, be willing to mentor them and be humble enough to learn from them. I just wish I knew how smart my Dad was when I was 16 years old…