University of Minnesota outreach, education aimed at agriculture’s future

Field of corn

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its Census of Agriculture earlier this year, it revealed the changing face of Minnesota farming. 

The census, conducted every five years, shows that Minnesota farmers are getting older, women are increasingly leading farms and more and more farmers are implementing conservation and sustainability practices for their operations.

Agriculture is one of the state’s largest industries, involving thousands of Minnesotans and billions of dollars, and the University of Minnesota is working to ensure a lucrative future for farmers. 

The U of M’s work on the future of farming takes a lot of forms, from county-level experts helping families navigate farm transitions to sustainability research and educational opportunities for students. 

Extension focusing on farm transitions

In Greater Minnesota, Extension educators are working with operators to ensure they have transition plans in place for when they retire. More than half of Minnesota farmers are over the age of 55, according to the USDA’s census, raising the stakes for orderly transitions. 

“The principal operators are getting older and a lot of land will change ownership in the coming years,” said Rob Holcomb, an Extension educator in Marshall who works with farmers on transition and taxation issues. “Looking to the future is a necessity. It helps create an awareness that this is something that needs to be thought about.”

This year, the U of M and Minnesota State have hosted a dozen workshops and retreats to train more than 330 farmers, ag professionals and families on transition planning. Practitioners said different types of transitions are emerging. The pastoral image of a son taking over from his father isn’t gone, but it’s expanding to daughters, other family members and new farmers taking ownership of a farm.

“The hard part of the succession plan is deciding who the farming heir is going to be and what type of financial transition is going to take place,” Holcomb said. “By doing these programs, we’re hopefully avoiding a fight.”

An eye on sustainability

The next generation of farmers will be especially adept at conservation techniques designed to make farm operations more sustainable while enhancing profitability.

U of M experts are focused on conservation, often going directly into the field to help educate farmers. Extension's Nitrogen Smart program, for example, trains farmers on techniques to increase yields while reducing the loss of nitrogen in the soil, benefiting the environment.

Future agricultural professionals have a chance to learn about sustainability while taking classes. The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) coordinates the University’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems minor degree program. U of M Twin Cities students can work on the all-organic Cornercopia Student Farm, conduct a research project or take an internship on a working farm.

“The organic farm, the coursework and associated internships are really a strong pipeline for turning out grads with experience in sustainable agriculture and local food,” MISA Associate Director Jane Jewett said.

Educational opportunities for students

The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) offers unique financial and educational resources for its students. The Land-Grant Legacy Scholars program, launched in 2017, is designed to support students from Greater Minnesota pursuing agricultural or natural resources degrees.

CFANS students are eligible for a mentorship program connecting them to ag and food industry experts. The majority of graduates land a job within their area of study within six months of graduation. Food science and nutrition graduates have a nearly 100 percent employment rate. 

Minnesotans have a chance to work with agriculture professionals even before they arrive at the U of M. The connection between farmers, the land and animals is fostered by Minnesota 4-H. It trains 65,000 students each year to help prepare them for life and careers on and off the farm. This month at the State Fair, U of M Extension will host thousands of Minnesota youth who will show off their skills in a wide variety of areas, including agricultural science.

Students receive career training across the U of M System. The U of M Morris’ Center for Small Towns (CST) connects students to community programs around Minnesota where they conduct research or gain on-the-job experience in their course of study, including agriculture. 

Last spring, U of M Morris student Felicia Galvan worked with a nonprofit establishing a local food system on the Red Lake Reservation. Through the project, she spoke with farmers around Minnesota, gathering advice for local residents looking to grow their own food.

“My role was to talk with local farmers about what they would recommend to a new farmer who wanted to start their own garden or self-sustaining farm for their family,” Galvan said. “I researched what farmers would recommend to rookies, so the community could get their farms and garden plots underway.”

Galvan had worked with a Native American community farm during high school. She said her CST job this year made her consider future prospects working in agriculture.

“This project brought me back into that community and reestablished for me the importance of growing sustainably,” she said. “It’s something I think I would be interested in pursuing.”

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