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Farmers have the reputation about being full of complaints. 

Complaints about the weather. Complaints about market prices. Complaints about the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost of farm machinery, the rising price of seed, fertilizer and the list goes on.

But very rapidly there is a new attitude about farming that seems to be growing, in which complaints are a much smaller share of the conversation.

There seems to be a change in the wind in the countryside and its not political. It has nothing to do with who is in the White House, who is in Congress or who is running the Environmental Protection Agency. It is an attitude shift and it seems to be closely related to the number of farms that are being primarily managed by a younger generation.

Rural sociologists and agricultural census takers point to surveys and say the average age of a farmer is barely across the county line from 60 years old. In the non-farming business world that age would be approaching retirement, but in the farming world that is just getting broken in. And that presents many challenges, since older farmers own the land, the equipment, and do it debt free. Younger farmers have the challenge of getting financing to even lease machinery and rent farmland because of the lack of equity. So, U.S. agriculture has hundreds of thousands of family farm succession plans to write.

But for those families who have developed those succession plans, they not only resolved the succession issues, but many of them have had a complete change in primary management. Instead of the more senior generation continuing to run the show, many farms are looking to the younger generations to contribute primary management. And when you take a deeper dive into the question why, it makes a lot of sense.

One of the principles of failure is to do something, “because we’ve always done it this way.”  While that may have worked in a predictable future, today’s world is very unpredictable, whether it is markets, weather, farm policy or the overall economy. And with grandpa leading the charge because a particular farming practice worked in 1948 does not mean its going to work 70 years later.

Enter the younger generation. Freshly minted at the nearby ag school, who has a grasp of the current dynamics and a different way to address those challenges. They know about data and have learned how to make data-driven decisions. They know how to conduct on-farm research and know just where on the farm to run those seed and fertilizer trials.

They have a different way of thinking than grandpa, dad, or maybe even their older sibling. In recent years more and more farms have seen a new generation take the reins of management, ready to assume responsibility, and bring new insight to solving long-term farm challenges. The senior generations which have put their faith and trust in the younger generations have not only enabled the younger generation to practice the skills needed for success, but to finely hone those skills to ensure the long-term success of the family farming operation.

It has not only allowed the younger generation to bring new thinking to the farm, but to possibly expand the operation in ways never imagined by the older generation. That includes new businesses that return more revenue, or new practices that save on costs and keep more revenue. Granddad’s pocket always held a notebook handed out by the seed corn dealer, where dates were recorded when fields were planted and how much it rained on a given day. That was the early beginning of decision making with data.

Today, grandson has a tablet with multiple layers of software that cut and dice millions of bits of data to enable decisions to be made on the fly. But in sharing the data, the younger generation is much more convincing about management decisions, giving the senior generations, who have every right and reason to congratulation themselves for making their management decision.

Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene. In addition to his weekly column, you can view his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.




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