Although it is sometimes overlooked, agriculture still dominates Alabama’s overall economy as the largest industry in the state throughout all 67 counties.
The annual $70 billion industry employs roughly one of every 4.6 workers in Alabama, with agricultural, forestry and related industries accounting for some 580,000 jobs in total. However, fewer Alabamians are choosing to farm as a profession than ever before.
During an appearance on Huntsville radio’s WVNN, Alabama Farmers Federation president Jimmy Parnell acknowledged his concerns with that trend and explained how profitability was the key to reversing it.
“I’m very concerned about that,” Parnell said on “The Jeff Poor Show.” “You go back to the very beginning of our country – 98% or so of the population were farmers. Today, I’m convinced we’re about 1% or so of the population that are farmers. The majority of young farmers come from farm families. There are a few exceptions that we can point to of an individual that did not grow up in agriculture that got in. But by and large, the majority of our farmers grow up in agriculture.”
“I’m most concerned about that issue because I have not seen the influx of young people – really in the last 30 years,” he continued. “I think it relates to profitability. I think if the farms are profitable, some of the family, young family members come home to the farm and carry on.”
Nationally, according to Parnell, farmers are getting older and that he said makes the need for younger farmers pressing.
“What makes this so important, the majority of our farmers are already past retirement age,” he said. “So if you look at the average age of a farmer, it’s like 68 or so nationwide,” he said. “This is a situation that we will see this happen in the next five to ten years: Either we’ll have a whole lot less farmers or we’ll get agriculture profitable enough to bring some of these young people back to the farms.”
Another hurdle the prospective next generation of farmers face is acquiring the knowledge and skills to maintain a farm.
“You can go to college and study agriculture or forestry and get some skills,” Parnell said. “But so many of the skills you use to actually manage that farm – you pretty much have to learn from someone or from doing it yourself. So, it’s a challenge for that individual that has no background to get started.”
However, the ALFA head said his organization was at the ready to provide guidance for young farmers if needed.
“You can reach out to any of our service centers,” he replied. “We’ll get someone involved with these young people. We are particularly proud of an effort we have had for several years. We’ve been trying to grow and expand our young farmers’ program. I’m very pleased that our number of young farmers that are participating in our organization has gone up significantly over the last few years. Yes, we would love to get young farmers involved. We’ll get them in a situation where they are with other young farmers that they can learn from. They can also attend events and things that we have where they can learn from all of our farmers.”