Farming’s future: Growers look to the next generation

Agriculture is a graying profession. The average age of the American farmer continues to climb.  According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture issued every five years, this year it’s 58.3. Three decades ago, the average age was 50.

It’s a concern for growers in Florida who are still active in the business but now are looking ahead to the future of their operations. FFVA talked with a few of them about the next generation of farming. All are members of the association’s board of directors.

Pam Fentress grows citrus and owns Lost Lake Groves Inc. in Lake Placid, which her family founded in 1964. David Hill is owner of Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, which was launched in 1999 and grows blueberries. Paul Orsenigo grows sweet corn, green beans and leafy vegetables in Belle Glade. He’s a partner in Grower’s Management and owns Orsenigo Farms. He started farming in 1985.

FFVA: How important is it to be looking ahead to the next generation of leadership for your company and for the industry, and what steps are you taking to do so?

David Hill (center) and sons several years ago.

Hill: Planning for the future is huge with any farm, but we are blessed to have our two sons who are now working on the farm. One is managing blueberries and one just got out of college and is learning the ropes. They are both passionate about farming, and that’s what they want to do. I don’t have to worry about succession because of that, and I’ve got total trust in the boys to take the farm to the next level. We’re doing a lot of things looking to the future. We’re changing some things, growing and evolving, and they are a big part of that. I’m not saying we’re stuck in our ways, but we do things the old-fashioned way. Now, they’re taking advantage of all of the new tools that are out there. Farming is so different now than it was 30 years ago. You’ve got information at your fingertips in a smartphone and computer that we never had. And it has helped our farm tremendously.

Pam Fentress

Fentress: There will always be food, so there will always be farmers.  However, will those new farmers have family history with the land, generational love of the same piece of land, and/or pride of ownership in private property landownership?  Perhaps not, but they can still produce blessed bounties as American farmers have always done.  They can still contribute to food production, water quality, biodiversity, natural resources, carbon sequestrations, etc.  The list is endless for the next generation of farmers.  They can increase their prosperity while improving the environment; improve food security from multiple markets.

I’m a seventh-generation Floridian and a fourth-generation citrus grower.  Being a small grower with multiple generations of family members wanting to farm the same piece of land is tough.  Over the years we’ve expanded our operation to accommodate, but there comes a time when it doesn’t make economic sense to do so anymore.  Sometimes you have to refocus, find your niche, cut your losses and move forward as lean and mean as you can.

Paul Orsenigo

Orsenigo: One way to approach it is to “grow from within.” My son, Derek, is part of our succession plan. In addition, we’re constantly trying to identify people who are good candidates for employment. If you’ve been in this business long enough, you can quickly see whether there is desire and managerial potential in an individual. Another key quality is a connection to the land and the crop — that’s the bedrock draw. To farm successfully, you have to continue to have an appreciation for what you do every day, even as you deal with the ups and downs and the daily details.

I’ve noticed that more young people are choosing career paths with companies on the input side rather than the farming side of the business. We need to cultivate relationships with more folks who are in production already, whether it’s with a family business or not, and engage them. Mentorship is important. Someone has to mentor young people — take some time, take them out to your operations. Cultivate those relationships and try to stay in contact with them so that when they do start on their career paths, they have an opportunity and it is a mutually rewarding fit.

It’s frustrating finding good candidates because farming takes commitment. It’s not a nine-to-five job. There has to be an upside for young people. Technology is a very attractive component in the recruiting process. Young people love all the apps and things related to that, such as precision agriculture, auto-steer equipment and monitoring equipment. That’s a strong drawing card. Being technologically progressive is important because that’s what this generation grew up on. They can’t identify with a shovel, but they can identify with a touch screen device.

FFVA: When you were starting out in agriculture, what was a valuable lesson you learned that made a significant impression on you?

Fentress: My grandfather used to say never marry a piece of land.  And while my head can wrap around those words, my heart has a harder time keeping up.  But that advice still holds true today.

Orsenigo:  What I learned most quickly was the sense of urgency and the vigorous pace of vegetable production. From a management perspective, you’re talking about efficient use of labor, efficient use of equipment, preparedness and responsiveness to weather events — especially drastic weather events as well as the volatile nature of our markets. I learned how critical it is to prepare and to quickly respond afterward, and the impact on the crop. That’s something I learned very quickly by just being on the ground and seeing things happen and evolve.

Hill: I married into an ag family. I was raised in the suburbs, not on a farm. So I started from scratch. My father-in-law taught me how to farm, and he turned over the reins kind of quick. And he taught me how to delegate. In turn, I’ve learned to turn over the reins for our blueberry farm. My son Michael is the blueberry grower. When we first started out, he and I talked every day about what to do, what to spray. Now we talk about farming issues, not the nuts and bolts. He’s taken that, and I’ve got total confidence in him. His sole focus is on growing blueberries, and that has helped us. We’ve gotten really good in a real short time growing blueberries because of that.

Be capable, dependable and diligent. If you’ve got those three things, you’re going to be successful. You have to have all three legs of that stool.”   – Grower Paul Orsenigo

FFVA: What words of advice or counsel would you give to the young men and women in the next generation of Florida agriculture?

Orsenigo: Work hard and people will notice. Be straightforward, reliable and dependable, and people will notice. Having creative ideas, being able to make a decision and being a problem solver … those are things people will notice. You have to work for it and responsibility has to be earned if it’s going to have any lasting value. That’s what’s been instilled in me over the years.

Work hard, and work smart. People will see that in a performance situation. Have a positive attitude. It’s also important to be able to get along with people and to lead by example. You have to earn their respect. These are timeless qualities … they still hold true. Be capable, dependable and diligent. If you’ve got those three things, you’re going to be successful. You have to have all three legs of that stool.

Hill: I started on the farm when I was 22, right out of college. I pretty much stayed on the farm and didn’t get involved in too many organizations because I was too busy running the farm. Today it’s so important for the next generation to know all of the rest of the next generation, and to grow up in the industry together. Something like FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program is so important. On a day-to-day basis, it won’t solve the world’s problems. But when you get a bunch of classes in a row together, and they all get to know each other and start networking, it’s huge. The contacts that are made and the knowledge that’s shared are so important. It’s amazing how much growth these young people can experience just because they know others in the industry. It’s important for companies to encourage their young employees to go out and join these organizations – otherwise they would be stuck in a closet and they wouldn’t see what’s around them other than what’s on their farm. The benefit of knowledge and relationships …. It’s immeasurable how much they mean to you.

Fentress: Never give up.  If you have a passion for farming, follow that dream.  No profession is more honorable than the small American farmer. Second, know that at the end of the day it isn’t how many acres you farm but how you took care of the land that’s been taking care of you. Don’t discount the hard-core environmentalist; instead, find your common ground.  And yes, there will be common ground.  Whatever job you have, do it with integrity, pride, intelligence, joy and courage.  A little dash of laughter and not taking yourself too seriously will also go a long way. Don’t forget that the people who work for you are actually the people who work with you.  If you have financial gains, make sure you share in those rewards.  If you have losses, make sure you shield them as long as possible.

This summarizes my current philosophy on farming in the future for the next generation of farmers to remember: The very individuals and institutions that can supposedly solve our problems — by leading us into a “sustainable” future — are the same ones responsible for the crisis in the first place.  Nineteenth- century statesman Frederic Bastiat referred to this diabolic political process as concocting the poison and the antidote in the same laboratory.

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