Millennials look to job opportunities in farming

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Seth Squires is a second-generation dairy farmer in upstate New York. At 18, he is part of a new trend in farming: Millennials who are choosing to continue a family tradition of farming.

Not a bad decision in a tight job market, especially given the opportunities to use new technology to give the business a boost.

Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the unemployment rate for Millennials was 5 percent. Meanwhile, the average hourly wage for most farmers was around $33.60 and the average yearly salary for those with five years experience and at least a high school diploma was $69,880. In 2012, there were about 110,000 25- to 34-year-old farmers, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Squires didn't plan on a career in farming, but he milked his first cow three years ago after his father was injured – and never looked back.

Now, he's looking forward to his future, with plans to inherit his family's farm in Munnsville, New York (population 477) and move it toward a new and booming market: organic farming.

Young farmers, while honoring family traditions, also "are also motivated to find new ways to make their farms profitable—that combination of goals makes for a very satisfying career," said Chelsey Simpson, spokeswoman for the National Young Farmers Coalition. "As a nation, we need to support policies that make it easier for young farmers to succeed, whether they are first-generation farmers or fifth generation."

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While Squires is focused on going organic, Matt Kurtbein, a third- generation farmer on his family's corn, soybean and rye farm in Tomah, Wisconsin, is cultivating information.

Kurtbein, 20, a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls studying crop and soil sciences, plans to use data science to keep his family farm ahead of the competition when he and his brother eventually take over.

Kurtbein said John Deere and other companies now offer data visualization software to overlay yield data and field history in order to calculate things like the optimal amount of fertilizer needed for crops.

Tyler Butler, 30, grew up on his family's 300-acre "you-pick" farm in Maryland, about two miles from Washington, D.C. After college, he worked in a lab at the University of Maryland but returned to farming when his uncle died and his father and aunt decided it was time for them to retire. Butler, his sister and brother will take over Butler's Orchard, an area iconic landmark for its huge pumpkins patches that attract thousands every October -- and they're looking to innovate.

As a third generation farmer, Butler said he wants to continue to provide the same quality products his parents and grandparents did, growing strawberries, raspberries, apples and pumpkins but with a more modern approach to business. He created the farm's first Facebook and Twitter pages, effectively moving 100 percent of the farm's advertising online to engage with and inform a younger generation of visitors.

One of Butler's first projects was a very modern version of "u-pick" called "dig your own potato" that was a big hit. Next up: "agro-tainment," a new trend that combines a festival environment with farming. Butler is thinking about a strawberry festival.

There's a future for Millennials in farming, Butler believes, because of the growing food-to-table movement, which relies on locally grown fruits, vegetables, dairy products and protein.

Unlike Squires and Butler, Matthew Taylor, 28, from Preston, Maryland, always wanted to be a farmer. Raised on his family's grain and poultry farm, by 16 he owned and operated his own produce stand. A year later, he had opened two more.

Taylor also wants to continue to diversify his farm's crops, adding fresh-cut flowers to a list that includes hogs, chicken, grain, hay and produce. His wife is turning an old barn into her own "flower barn" business.

Jamie Tiralla, 33, is a first-generation farmer married to a third-generation farmer in southern Maryland.

First-generation farmers transitioning to a new way of life as well as adult children moving back to run family farms have banded together in her state to form the Maryland Young Farmers group within the state Farm Bureau, Tiralla said.

It can be hard for young farmers to reinvent their family farms, she said.

They are "coming into a business that's already established, they're not starting from scratch but picking up where their parents are left off."

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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