With the current plunge in corn prices, young farmers just starting out are struggling with greater financial risk as they harvest an expected record-large crop this fall.
Yet Jacob Handsaker, the new Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Advisory Committee chair, says he wants young farm families to know that they don’t have to face these uncertain times alone.
Farm Bureau, and the Young Farmer Advisory Committee, are reaching out to provide young farmers with the knowledge, networking connections and collective strength they need to rise above the challenges — in this generation and the next, Handsaker says.
"My goal is to try to help everyone keep their heads up. Things aren’t the greatest, but we are still out enjoying the sunshine and life on the farm," Handsaker says. "We need to keep getting the message out to young farmers that Farm Bureau is here to help, that Farm Bureau has their back."
Handsaker and his wife, Mindy, are Hardin County Farm Bureau members who farm near Radcliffe. The couple has three children: Miles, 5; Ellie, 3 and William, 18 months.
Jacob started farming full-time in 2008 after graduating from Iowa State University and working as a production manager for Innovative Lighting in Roland.
Handsaker said the management experience proved useful when he returned to the farm and started an excavating company with his two younger brothers and a cousin.
The farm, including the excavating company, currently has six full-time employees, plus Handsaker’s brothers, his dad and his uncle. The family also recently launched a trucking business.
In addition, the family finishes pigs for Tri Oak Farms in Ames, and they grow commercial sweet corn and green peas for Birds Eye Foods based in Minnesota.
Diversification is essential for many young families working to establish their farms, Handsaker says.
"Just on the young farmer committee, we’ve got (farm families) who are into specialty livestock, who build bins in the off-season or are heavy into seed sales ... ," he says. "And as we are moving to $3 or lower corn, that diversity is the key."
Young farmer conference
The Handsakers first got involved in Farm Bureau after friends invited them to attend the organization’s annual Young Farmer Conference in Des Moines.
"We had a lot of fun and met outstanding people," Handsaker says. "So when we heard there was an opening on the (state) young farmer committee, we decided to give it a shot."
The Handsakers are currently serving their third year of a three-year term on the Young Farmer Advisory Committee. They also are Hardin County Farm Bureau board members. Jacob is the board’s vice president, and Mindy is the secretary.
Mindy, a former elementary school teacher, recently joined the North Iowa Ag in the Classroom program and will travel to local schools, educating young students about food and farming.
As one of his first roles as young farmer chair, Handsaker participated in a roundtable discussion with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last month to discuss policy issues impacting young farmers.
"My main concern was water quality, and that is multi-faceted," Handsaker says. "As a young farmer, I’m interested in making a profit, protecting our land for the next generation and our excavating business."
Handsaker told Vilsack that young farmers want to "ditch the rule" — the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule — that gives the federal government broader authority to regulate farming practices under the Clean Water Act.
Young farmers are also struggling to gain access to farmland, Handsaker says. Specifically, they can’t compete with the current Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rates.
"No one can tell you what to do with your land. That’s one of the best things about this country," Handsaker says.
"But it’s a downfall for young farmers. With CRP rates at $300 to $400 per acre, young farmers can’t rent for that much and make money at these low corn prices. And people are turning quality fields into CRP," he added. "It’s very difficult to compete with the government to get land, and we shouldn’t have to compete with the government."
Handsaker says farm finances, risk management, water quality and technology will be the focus of the 2017 Young Farmer Conference, hosted by the Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Advisory Committee in January.
Helping young farmers
The conference, which brought together 500 young farmers from across the state in 2016 and continues to grow each year, gives farm families an opportunity to network and learn from each other, Handsaker says.
"A lot of knowledge gets passed around, and friendships get made," Handsaker says. "There’s also the support that other farmers can give (you) as a collective group. And right now, young farmers need all the help they can get."
Handsaker says he hopes the conference encourages a new generation of young farmers to get active in Farm Bureau and help move the state’s largest farm organization into the future.
"If we want to have a strong, vibrant organization, we need to have the young people coming in to carry it on," Handsaker says. "We need young farmers who are interested, who are involved and who bring new ideas into the organization. We need people at the grass-roots levels to step up."