By Blair McCowen
When people think of farmers, they think of people who are well-established with years of experience – those that have handled everything mother nature can throw at them for decades, all the while coming out of the storm stronger than before. Yes, farmers are those people, but there are also those just beginning their careers with clear eyes and full hearts that still have many things to learn. Young farmers who have families of their own forging a path in agriculture different than that of generations before them. Farmers who often have their voices disregarded in political circles because of their age. Young farmers who want to affect change and are doing something about it.
For the Advancement of Agriculture
A revitalization of the Terry County Young Farmers Association that was active in the 1970s and 80s, the West Texas Young Farmers Association is a group of young farmers from Terry, Yoakum, Gaines and Lynn counties keen on advocating for agriculture. Crops represented in its membership include cotton, peanuts, wheat and milo, bringing the advantage of different agricultural experiences to the association. The three main goals of the organization are community involvement, political involvement and educational efforts, all overseen by a nine-member board and senior advisory committee.
“As young producers, we have different challenges that older producers may not necessarily have,” said Mason Becker, president of the WTYFA. “In the downturn of the economy, we are looking at a bunch of us younger guys not only financing our livings and our operations, but we are also financing equipment and a lot of challenges that we haven’t had the opportunity to grow out of. We want to focus on getting that message out and how the political side of things affects what we do as younger producers. It is no secret that there are less younger producers than there ever has been. If we are going to have a future in agriculture, we are going to have to start shaping that future ourselves.”
The WTYFA works to make sure their membership is actively involved and reaps every possible benefit from the seeds they sow.
“As far as our membership base, we just want people to be actively involved in what we are doing,” Becker said. “If we have an event going on, anybody and everybody is welcome to come join. If you want to promote the positive things about agriculture and be involved, that is who we want.”
Tanner Hogue, reporter for the association, also said anyone looking to become a member ought to have a passion for agriculture.
“You have to have a passion for what you are doing, what you want to accomplish, and what you want to see agriculture do in the future,” Hogue said.
Among the younger farmers in the group, board member Kirk Martin said he has the opportunity to learn from those that are even just a couple of years older than him as well.
“Well, like me being younger than most of these guys, I don’t understand a lot of the political stuff or the insurance,” Martin said. “I am getting the grasp of it, but having these guys helps me be able to understand what is going on and just learn about it in general.”
Start ‘em Young
Helping others does not just happen within the WTYFA. The group also works to grow its roots into the surrounding communities. Lexi Floyd, treasurer of the organization, heads up the educational outreach efforts. After joining the board just last year, she recognized the need to provide children and teachers with some agricultural education. With an educational background in agricultural communications, she was the perfect person for the job.
“This board is very proactive in getting the message [of agriculture] out there, trying to get connected with people, trying to get ahead of the game a little bit,” Floyd said. “I have been going into schools doing the Texas Farm Bureau Planting the Seed program and going into kindergarten through junior high classrooms basically teaching plant life cycles, basic science as it relates to agriculture. If we can help the teacher give them the correct perspective and correct mindset and the facts, our roots just go out exponentially after that.”
Floyd has also been working with Texas Farm Bureau to expand its educational programs in the WTYFA’s area. In addition to visiting schools around the Texas High Plains area, the WTYFA also provides scholarships to high school juniors with an interest in agriculture. Money to fund the scholarships is raised through local community events the association hosts and donations from sponsors. This year, the association was successful in raising $15,000 for three scholarship recipients, Hunter Cudd, Bradley Franke and Gilbert Perez, who must also complete a job shadowing session as well as a resume and cover letter session with Floyd before receiving their awards.
When first considering the implementation of a scholarship program, Becker said the decision of whether or not to donate time to the kids’ professional careers in addition to money was an easy choice, as the WTYFA provides scholarships to applicants not only interested in attending universities, but vocational schools as well.
“It was almost a no-brainer,” Becker said. “Rather than just putting forth the money, why wouldn’t we share some of the experiences that we have learned and have others do the same?”
Scholarship recipients Bradley Franke and Hunter Cudd were grateful to have received such a generous award from the association and said it would greatly benefit their futures in agriculture.
“I plan on staying in this community and staying in agriculture,” Franke energetically said, “whether it be farming or cattle or what, and this job shadowing does help you decide what you want to do because I have no clue if I want to do ag communications or ag engineering or just ag business, so hopefully this job shadowing will help kind of narrow it down and help me decide.”
“We can learn a lot from people who are older than us who have learned from people who are older than them and how the industry works and be able to better communicate that to our friends,” Cudd said. “I want to go learn more to help our community, you know, to be better educated about what we do around here.”
All the Way to Washington
Any chance the WTYFA gets, the group is politically active in helping make sure farmers are protected. No matter if at the local community level, on Capitol Hill in D.C., or at agricultural summits across the state, a member of the association is present making sure young farmers have a voice.
Board member Jon Williams said the association’s political activities stemmed from the group’s desire to have its voice heard when it came to farm policy, crop insurance, and any other program farmers need to survive a downturn.
“We wanted a voice and we didn’t feel like, I guess in a similar situation, that we were getting that,” Williams said. “We have made a lot of contacts with congressmen and other people and some organizations like the National Cotton Council and the Southwest Council of Agribusiness. As this grows, that voice gets larger and they are beginning to contact us. We also contact them and tell them here is what we need and what we are going through.”
Rhett Green, vice president of the association, leads the charge on political action. As the nephew of a farmer from Meadow, Texas, who rode his tractor all the way to Washington to advocate for agriculture, Green has been led by family example to understanding how important Washington’s support of farmers is.
“When Tanner, Stetson and I went to an ag summit in Fort Worth, people actually listened and wanted to talk to us,” Green said proudly. “They were actually excited that young guys really cared and wanted to do something about it. In all honesty, whether we get something done or not, if we just sit on our tails, you can see what happened when cotton got kicked out of the Farm Bill.”
Echoing the importance of sharing the struggles and needs of young farmers with political leaders, Becker said that sometimes advocating can be difficult, but once a person finds people do care about the struggles of others, it makes it worthwhile.
“For a long time I didn’t think my voice was worth hearing,” Becker said. “I thought that I was the younger guy and people didn’t care about what I was saying, and I was wrong. People in higher places do want to know what it is like for us. It just takes speaking up, having a voice and being willing to kind of let them know what we are going through.”
Lightheartedly, Becker further expanded on his views about farm policy.
“Farm policy is kind of like a good wife, you take it for granted until it is not there,” Becker said with a chuckle. “People take farm policy for granted because if we don’t take care of our ag producers now, if that farm policy goes away and we can no longer compete against our foreign competition, we will go out of business and nobody will notice until their food and clothing prices skyrocket. People think it is a scare tactic used by farmers but it is a reality. We compete in a free economy, not a fair economy. There is a difference.”
Dan Jackson, senior advisory committee member to the WTYFA, said farm policy and other farmer support programs are pertinent to allowing the next generation of agriculturists to confidently continue their operations.
“These guys do more with less than anybody else in the world,” Jackson said. “They aren’t subsidized, their fuel isn’t bought for them, their implements aren’t purchased for them. They do more with less, they have embraced technology and it shows. If we don’t have good sound farm policy, we could lose a whole generation and you can’t get that back.”
Reese Rowden, WTYFA board member, echoed Jackson’s comments, saying that the amount of money it would take for an individual to start sustainably farming from scratch would be in the millions. On the same token, board secretary Barrett Brown said others will never understand the struggles of farmers unless someone from within the industry is willing to meet them where they are and educate them on such issues.
The Future of the Industry
“Just to put it simply,” Becker said, “I think we represent the present and future of agriculture, and we are trying to be that positive voice. More than anything, I think as a whole that is what the West Texas Young Farmers stands for. You are never going to move forward – you are never going to progress – if you don’t have a group of people moving in the same direction.”