Pennsylvania wants kids to get agriculture experience, farmers see technology as future

As the summer growing season gets underway, the agricultural industry continues its perennial mission of looking for a new crop of young people to enter the workforce.

“Pennsylvania has long faced a looming agricultural workforce shortage, at one point estimating a deficit of 75,000 workers as farmers retire and new, technology-based positions become available,” said Sharon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Pennsylvania agriculture is a $132.5 billion industry with about 600,000 jobs that pay nearly $33 billion in wages each year, according to state agriculture officials.

Last year, state officials said Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry will need 75,000 skilled workers in the next decade.

This past week, they urged families across the state to pursue hands-on argriculture learning activities for kids this summer.

“It’s all of our responsibility to show (children) the value of farming and agriculture, to grow an interest in being a part of this meaningful industry,” Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture, said last week at an event at Paulus Farm Market in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County. “Kids are the future of the industry that we all rely on for three meals a day and the clothes on our backs.”

Fewer than 7% of farmers in Westmoreland County are under the age of 35, according to the USDA’s 2017 census of agriculture. At this rate, young agricultural workers cannot fully replace the current workforce as older producers retire and age out of the workforce.

Nathan Graham of Graham Dairy Supply says the number of young people in the agricultural sector might not pose as severe a threat to the industry as previously thought.

“There’s less and less (young people), but there’s still a small area,” he said.

Graham sees the future of agriculture in technology. In addition to his work with Brad Carr and his robotic livestock feeding device, Graham’s family business along Old Route 66 in Greensburg seeks to outfit local farms with cutting-edge agricultural technologies.

The idea, according to Graham, is to provide smaller farms with the necessary technology to complete the maximum amount of work with the minimum labor force. This way, those farms can remain relevant and functioning, even as the workforce decreases.

Graham also noted the industry is seeing a shift in how it trains and attracts young people. For many family farms, job training is a family affair that starts at a young age and can be a lifelong process. However, Graham said he is seeing more and more young people seek out formal training in a wider variety of fields and later apply their training to the agricultural sector. He said there is an increasing demand for workers with engineering, robotics and mechanical backgrounds.

The farming industry is constantly growing to include a greater set of skills and expertise, said Rick Ebert, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau president and a dairy farmer in Derry Township. Ebert hopes to soon see an influx of engineers, nutrition specialists and climate scientists enter the agricultural scene. Their insights, he said, will be vital to the industry in the coming years.

He said the lack of young workers is not necessarily an issue of interest or skill, but rather communication and awareness.

“There’s so many different opportunities,” he said. “In the world of agriculture, technology is evolving so much.”

One option for those seeking to break into the industry would be to apply for any of a number of state-funded grants specifically crafted for young farm workers. The AG & Youth Grant Program, Farm to School Program and Farm Vitality Grant Program are just some of the recent efforts by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to encourage youth participation in agriculture.

Ebert also said the Farm Bureau can be an invaluable resource in assisting young farmers. He recommends young people interested in agriculture to connect with a farmer near retirement age and begin building a business plan.

“If someone has the motivation and entrepreneurship to seek out these avenues, there are tremendous opportunities for them,” Ebert said.