SUNBURY -- More than 60 percent of farmers are over the age of 55, and without young farmers to replace them when they retire, the nation's food supply would depend on fewer and fewer people.
"This is an alarming revelation that we have been hearing for several years," said Tim Lesher, a member of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau's Young Farmer and Rancher Committee and president of the Northumberland County Farm Bureau.
Each year, one farmer feeds more and more people, Lesher said. "And, it is estimated that by the year 2025, we will need to produce 25 percent more food to feed our own nation and the world. If this is the case, where will we be by 2050?"
Compound that with the fact that the number of youths entering the production agricultural work force is small.
Maybe that's why U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently called for 100,000 new farmers within the next few years, and Congress has responded with proposals that would provide young farmers with improved access to USDA support and loan programs.
One beginning farmer is Geena Martyn, 24, from the Beaver Springs area.
As a teen, she said Friday, all she wanted to do was leave her family's farm and find a career that didn't involve cows. But she changed her mind after spending years in dead-end jobs at a restaurant.
"In those jobs I'm just a number, just a time-clock puncher," Martyn said. "But now I'm doing what I love to do. If I'm having a rough day or I'm a little sad because the sun's not shining or my tractor's broken, I can always go out and be by the cattle. That makes me feel better."
Martyn, and others like her, are getting help in changing careers from an apprenticeship program paid for by the USDA, which began giving money in 2009 to universities and nonprofit groups that help train beginning farmers. The grants helped train about 5,000 people the first year.
This year, the USDA estimates even more people will benefit from the program.
While fresh demographic information on U.S. farmers won't be available until after the next agricultural census is done next year, there are signs that more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming: Enrollment in university agriculture programs has increased, as has interest in farmer-training programs, according to USDA.
The young entrepreneurs typically cite two reasons for going into farming: Many find the corporate world stifling and see no point in sticking it out when there's little job security; and demand for locally grown and organic foods has been strong enough that even in the downturn they feel they can sell their products.
The question of where the next generation of farmers will come from is always on the minds of those closely involved with agriculture, said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, based in Camp Hill.
"The bureau is very involved in promoting efforts that encourage young adults to pursue careers in farming and other agriculture-related occupations," O'Neill said Thursday. "Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has a state Young Farmer and Rancher (YF&R) Committee, while county Farm Bureaus also have YF&R committees."
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has organized Collegiate Farm Bureaus at Penn State and Delaware Valley College.
"These college students are highly motivated and are interested in pursuing some form of a career in agriculture, including working on a farm or in a wide variety of agriculture-related businesses or in agriculture research," O'Neill continued. "The Farm Bureau is also a strong supporter of FFA and 4-H programs, which encourages youngsters to learn about raising animals, growing crops and environmental impacts of farming. We are advocates of programs that encourage agriculture education in high schools across the commonwealth."
If farming is beginning to sound like an appealing career, there are downsides, to be sure.
The work involves tough physical labor, and vacations create problems when there are crops to be harvested and cows to be milked.
Many farmers need second jobs to get health insurance or make ends meet.
And three-fifths of farms have sales of less than $10,000 a year, although some may be growing fruit trees or other crops that take a few years to develop.
Certainly, there are many reasons why young people decide not to pursue careers in farming, even if they were born and raised on a farm, O'Neill conceded. "Many don't want to deal with low profit margins, excessive regulations and long hours with physically demanding work. Farm children know how their parents have struggled over the years to remain economically viable. They also recognize how costly regulations limit or prohibit their ability to expand or change operations in order to become more profitable."
Land costs hurt
Meanwhile, the cost to rent land or purchase a farm, even from a family member, can be staggering for a young adult. Even if parents are offering a major family discount or are willing to work with children on terms of a future sale, the farm transition process is often not an easy one.
"The younger generation wants assurances that they will be able to take advantage of new advancements in research and technology in order to meet the public's demand for agriculture items," O'Neill said. "They are not looking for guarantees that they'll be profitable, but they want to make sure that policies and regulators are not created that will make it impossible for them to make a living."
A big obstacle for the future of farming occurs when children of farmers graduate from college and want to return to work on the home farm, but unless the operation expands, how will the farm generate enough income to support an additional family or families.
"There is no simple answer to this question," O'Neill said.
Despite all of the challenges farmers face, many young farmers say the future is bright and that they are eager to pursue a career in farming.
Pennsylvania farmers look at their close proximity to major population areas in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C., for customers of their products.
They know that exports of agricultural products are expected to significantly increase, and consumers have shown an interest in buying local, supporting state farmers through purchases at roadside stands, farm markets, grocery stores and Pennsylvania Preferred products.
Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.