As we recognize National Agriculture Day, we are provided with an opportunity to reflect on the state of agriculture here in Iowa, the nation, and the world. Today alone, Iowa’s farms will produce an astonishing 20 million pounds of pork and 25 million eggs! Whether you had bacon and eggs or cereal and milk for breakfast, there is a good chance some of it came from one of our 88,500 farms, 97 percent of which are family owned.

While we marvel at the production of our hardworking farmers and ranchers, we also must recognize that the agricultural economy, which is cyclical by nature, is in the midst of a severe downturn. Farm income has been cut by over half in the past two years, and is projected to decline further should commodity prices continue to fall.

This dramatic downturn is reminiscent of the hard times we faced in the 1980s, when low prices pushed many farmers to the brink, or beyond into bankruptcy. The farm crisis resulted in an entire generation of young people who avoided going into agriculture, and instead pursued a more stable field of employment.

Today, we still see the effects of that generation gap created during the farm crisis. The average farmer is almost 60, and the demand for young people to get into agriculture is greater than ever. We must not allow another gap to occur during this downturn. Rather, we must prevent it by supporting the vocational and agricultural education of our youth.

Growing passion for ag

Agriculture will continue to follow its natural course of upturns and downturns, which is why we must work to grow a passion for agriculture in younger generations. After all, Iowa farmers feed and fuel the world.

When visiting with organizations such as 4-H and FFA, I am encouraged by the work they are doing to highlight career fields related to agriculture for students. My daughter is in high school, and just like her mother at that age, she is involved with the local 4-H club. Whether it is service through these organizations, or in the classroom where students are learning about agronomy, soils, wood and metal working, and a myriad of other technical real-world skills, it is wonderful to see the interest in helping others that our young high school students exemplify.

Additionally, our public universities right here in Iowa are leading the way in next generation research in agriculture. They are creating the future in plastics, fuels and other products made from previously untapped sources, such as produce and vegetation. Satellites and unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, are being developed and improved to enhance our ability to produce more food on every acre.

Startups flourishing

Moreover, just two months ago, an Iowa startup called AccuGrain won the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge. The founder is a young man named Ryan Augustine, and he was behind the idea of measuring flowing grain using x-ray technology.

Last year’s winners were a group of young Iowans, Stuart McCulloh, Michael Koening and Holden Nyhus, who developed an app called ScoutPro for helping farmers make better crop management decisions.

It is very encouraging to see these great ideas taking shape in Iowa, and it gives me hope that the next generation of agricultural leaders will be grown in our state.

As an eternal optimist, I know we must never doubt the resilience of the American farmer. They have weathered many storms, and they will make it through this downturn as well. Let us ensure the next generation is ready to take the reins when their time comes.

Ernst is the junior U.S. Senator from Iowa.