Fort Report: More Farm Bill
Hannah Esch, an agriculture student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a Nebraska Beef Ambassador, was surprised on a recent visit with young school children. When asked a basic question about where food comes from, a third-grader from a rural community answered that eggs come from cows since they are next to milk in the grocery store. The response reinforced Hannah’s desire to go deeper into ag education and outreach.
Hannah is a specialty livestock producer, with a fascinating background as an ag pioneer. She is part of a growing movement of young agriculture entrepreneurs. She is a passionate advocate for production agriculture, while also seeking emerging niche opportunity. The average age of the Nebraska farmer is 58-years-old. With that comes a generational transfer on the horizon and an interesting convergence of amazing new opportunity. Two dynamics are on the verge of breaking out: smaller-scale farm production, and the nimble, innovative use of technology in ag.
At a gathering held this week by Tom Field, Director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska, I met Hannah and a fascinating range of persons in the ag space. Their businesses ranged from organic popcorn production to ag tech in the internet of things. Others were leaders in the farm-to-table movement, boutique vegetable growers, and specialty livestock sellers. Some were large grain producers experimenting with cover crop soil enhancement and precision agriculture.
Not everyone was young. Not everyone came from farm families. What they shared was a passionate desire to add value to traditional production agriculture and create the space for a new food movement that is showing enormous potential. We discussed certain policies embedded in the Farm Bill, such as value-added grants and assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers. Among the participants were the Brugger brothers, engaging young people who could star in a reality TV show. They are adding enormous value to the farm commodities they produce. The twins not only distill corn and raise cattle, they create a sequence of value across multiple agricultural products from hops to whiskey to finished meats. Their vertical integration puts the value in the value chain—in their pocket.
The brothers, however, are about more than food. They also want to lure members of their generation back to their small town by building community around artisanal ag production. This connectivity around food is also shared by Hannah, who has grown her premium brand of beef through the power of story. Using Instagram photos and video, Hannah sells her livestock products direct via the internet to a diverse range of customers around the country who yearn to know the provenance of their food.
Hannah draws interest in her beef by showing the life cycle of her cattle. Through her compelling use of social media, she invites customers into the intimate process of livestock production. Her market is to a world hungry for the authentic story behind what’s for dinner.
Those of you who regularly read the Fort Report have probably noticed that for the last couple weeks I have emphasized the thematic of farming. By going back to the Farm Bill one more time, my intent is to note that a 21st century architecture for economic and social well-being is inextricably intertwined with the entrepreneurial drive that our young people possess to be stewards of the land, to grow our ag family, and to create the space for genuine food relationship.
This Millennial-driven movement signifies an embrace of the traditional, human-scaled model of agriculture for which our society is yearning, while remaining firmly within, and adding to, the mainstream of production agriculture that feeds America and the world.