While the time-honored tradition of passing the family farm from one generation to the next holds strong, the scene on today’s farm is much different than what may have been familiar in the past. These days, you are just as likely to see a young farmer swiping quickly through multiple screens on a smartphone as seated on a tractor or plowing a field.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of farmers has grown from 50.5 years to 58.3 years in the past 30 years. As the age of farmers and ranchers increases, so does the number of mouths to feed. Our global population is expected to exceed 9.6 billion people by 2050, and farmers will be tasked with producing 70 percent more food by then.
With farmers reaching retirement age and leaving their farms, how will we meet the global demand for food? Three words: The. Next. Generation.
Generation X Cultivated to Take Over
There is a reason why 99 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are family owned and operated. Farmers take pride in cultivating the next generation, bringing their children to play and work on the farm at a young age. They pass on the lessons they have learned over the years to keep the farm sustainable and profitable, while teaching them how to care for Mother Earth and her land.
Caught between the vast waves of boomers and millennials, members of Generation X have come of age and are next in line to carry the torch of feeding the world. Gen Xers, those born between 1965 and 1980, are now applying their “latchkey kids” traits, such as uber-independence, to enhance the workplace.
The Nunes Company, one of the nation’s largest grower-shippers of conventional and organic fresh produce, recently elected Tom M. Nunes to serve as its president. At 42 years old, Nunes—known as “T5”—will be the fourth generation to run the company.
“I grew up around the business and around a lot of family and great mentors that have been involved with the business for the past four decades,” said Nunes (T5). “When my dad and grandfather offered me a position with the family business, it was a no-brainer.”
During the summer of 1999, he moved to Yuma and began his career at the family farm. Nunes worked his way up through the company, gaining experience in all aspects of the organization including harvesting, production, cooling, shipping, sales and marketing. He eventually took the reins as vice president of operations where he not only built upon longstanding partnerships with industry stewards such as BlazerWilkinson and Peri & Sons Farms, but is in the midst of creating new ones.
“Tom has always been a huge supporter of our Center, bringing the perfect blend of pragmatism and optimism when it comes to technology on the farm,” said Dennis Donohue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology. “He’s always willing to give his time to support our agtech startups and understands the value of establishing relationships with them to, together, develop tools that fill real-world needs for food producers.”
Millennials Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Farm
Generation Y (those who turn 23 to 38 in 2019) are also playing a significant role in the sustainability of farming and agriculture by bringing technology to the field as a solution for feeding a growing population. This generation, also known as millennials, is said to be incredibly sophisticated and tech-savvy as they have been exposed to all types of digital engagement since early childhood.
Domenick Buck—a fourth-generation farmer—currently serves as assistant ranch manager for Anthony Vineyards, managing his family farm’s table grape operations in the Bakersfield area. At 30, he is always on the lookout for new technologies that can be game-changers for table grape production.
“Table grapes are an extremely labor intensive commodity,” said Buck. “Our company estimates, from the time that we start pruning until the end of harvest, it’s roughly 700 man hours per acre to farm. Due to increasing labor costs, we have to find ways to be proactive and focus on mechanization and automation that can supplement the human element of harvesting.”
He notes that the way table grapes are harvested today is “archaic,” in that those picking the grapes walk half a row (could be up to 300 feet in difficult terrain), fill their picking bins on top of a wheel barrow and walk them to the end of the row.
“I estimate 15 percent of their day is just walking up and down the rows. We need to find a technological solution that is both practical and affordable. This will allow the labor force to focus solely on harvesting, which would be extremely beneficial in productivity and cost savings,” he said.
Understanding how technology can play a role in battling regulatory hurdles and crippling labor shortages, companies are now creating positions dedicated to sourcing promising inventions. Bowles Farming Company, one of the early adopters of agricultural technology, has a team of young employees solely dedicated to researching new and emerging technologies for the farm and developing integration strategies for scaling proven solutions.
In fact, the company has already implemented and deployed numerous innovations coming out of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, including WaterBit’s automated irrigation solution and HarvestPort’s equipment sharing marketplace.
Sun World Innovations, a division of Sun World International, is also looking to the millennial generation to identify new agricultural technologies that can potentially be trialed and adopted on Sun World farms. Victoria Kovacevich joined the Sun World Innovations team after graduating from Cornell University in 2017. As an agriculture technology analyst, she is responsible for identifying, validating and assessing new ag technologies relevant to Sun World’s farming pursuits and those of its licensees.
“Labor and automation, especially with specialty crops, are struggles that need to be addressed. Bringing technology companies together with growers to form relationships and collaborate on creative solutions is really the way that anything is going to advance and is the way that everyone will be successful in the end,” said Kovacevich during the View from the Farm: The Next Generation panel at Western Growers’ AgTechx event in Delano this past September.
“Being at the beginning stage of this industry is exciting. I’m looking forward to see what the future holds and to continue working with tech startups to try to come up with solutions to our challenges,” Kovacevich remarked.