Next gen agriculture

Twenty-one-year-old FFA leader Brian Walsh encourages a new crop of students to help shape farms of the future.

Brian Walsh

In the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb where Brian Walsh grew up, farming was the last thing on his classmates’ minds, he says.

But raising livestock was the first thing on Walsh’s mind from an early age, when he “fell in love with agriculture” and began raising and showing lambs and hogs he kept on nearby farmers’ land.

“For me, the excitement of farming came from the learning process of being in such a unique industry,” he says. “There’s a cool feeling that comes with raising a lamb or pig from birth to market weight and being there in all stages of its life. A farm is an environment that immediately gives you a sense of responsibility, and the responsibility that comes with caring for an animal is huge.”

Today, the 21-year-old Virginia Tech college student is sharing his passion for the next generation of agriculture with the world—literally.

We as young agriculturalists have a responsibility to dive into the industry but also to find ways to get others involved as well.”
— Brian Walsh

Walsh traveled more than 100,000 miles during his year as president of the National FFA Organization (Future Farmers of America) in 2013-2014, talking to young FFA members and meeting with business and government leaders about the challenges of feeding a growing global population. It’s something this young leader had already been pondering, he says, as he worked toward his degree in agribusiness. (He took a year off college to serve as president of FFA, which offers students ages 12-21 leadership and career training through agricultural education programs.)

The young people Walsh talks to are focused on two major issues, he says: how to feed a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and how to get younger generations of students into agriculture. “Those are some major worries for young folks, but they are also very exciting because it is us that will figure out how to do it,” Walsh says. The average age for a farmer in the United States is over 55, and that number is expected to continue climbing, he adds. “We as young agriculturalists have a responsibility to dive into the industry but also to find ways to get others involved as well.”

Walsh sees FFA as an ideal vehicle for spreading the word. With an all-time membership high of more than 580,000 today, FFA saw its ranks increase by 60,000 students from 2007 to 2012, even as nearly 100,000 farms shut down in the United States. In fact, FFA continues to attract higher numbers of students who are growing up in cities and suburbs, as they discover the wide array of agricultural careers beyond traditional farming.

“The agricultural industry is becoming more diverse, creating jobs which we never saw 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Walsh said during an interview at Kansas State University.

Mixing traditional and innovative solutions

There’s still plenty of room for the family farm, however, because using land more efficiently doesn’t necessarily have to mean more corporate-owned farms, says Walsh. “About 98 percent of farms across the U.S. are family owned. These are family farms that are producing food for the United States, but also for the world,” he says. “As we move forward, we see a lot of interest in getting into agriculture, especially small-scale agriculture. We do see family farms continuing to grow, continuing to market and sell the products that are feeding the world.”

In locations where space is especially tight, vertical farming could be one successful strategy for maximizing agricultural land, says Walsh, who has visited vertical university research farms in Japan. He thinks this farming style could be useful in countries with large populations where arable land is scarce. “They’re growing lettuce 15 layers high, producing 15 times the amount of lettuce in one-acre plots [in Japan],” he says. “It’s kind of cool to see that they’re relying on it because they see how effective that is.”

Walsh also envisions vertical farming and rooftop gardens in U.S. urban areas to produce crops for local restaurants. “I think urban farming can help,” he adds. “I don’t think we can be sustainable off of urban agriculture. But I think that No. 1, urban agriculture is linking that consumer need to the food supply directly, and No. 2, it’s being a little bit more efficient with our space and with our resources.”

Large-scale farms

Even as farmers of the future come to rely more and more on technology advancements, traditional large-scale rural farming will remain key to feeding the world, Walsh contends. “Large-scale agriculture, growing hundreds of acres of corn or raising hundreds of head of livestock, is important and is the only way that we’re going to be able to continue to feed all the people on this earth,” he says.

But this form of agriculture also faces negative stereotypes about “factory farms,” he says. “The real issue is conveying the facts that people just don’t know.” Because the average American is disconnected from even the basics of agriculture, believes Walsh, the industry needs to explain to the public how farming works and to share information about the food supply’s safety and affordability.

“I think that when we just convey the facts and allow consumers across the country to make their own decisions—whether that is to support large-scale agriculture, whether that’s to buy local or buy organic—the opportunity is in communicating what agriculture is all about. An educated consumer is the goal in the end,” says Walsh, who plans to earn a master’s degree in agriculture education.

Howard Wolinsky

Howard Wolinsky, who covered medicine and technology for the Chicago Sun-Times for 27 years, is a freelance science and business writer for European Molecular Biology Organisation Reports, Crain's Chicago Business and other media. He is based in the Chicago area.

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