Millennial Growers Are Increasingly Making Key Farming Decisions
"I want to make the best, most informed decisions I can," says DeFauw, 31, who farms with his father-in-law near Geneseo, Illinois. "I would rather visit with someone over the phone or in person, instead of wading through millions of Google search pages to find answers."
DeFauw isn’t alone. Millennials (generally defined as people born between 1982 and 2004*) in agriculture are information seekers and decision makers. Consider 28-year-old Josh Miller, who makes about 90 percent of the management decisions on his family’s corn, soybean and wheat farm near Tamms, Illinois.
"Sometimes I watch YouTube videos or search Google to find answers, but you have to be careful," says Miller, who has been farming full-time with his father for six years. "I still like information from people I know and trust, because their advice is more credible."
As millennials prepare to become the principal operators of many farms during the next decade, surprising new research is shattering myths about what makes them tick.
"Millennials are one of the most talked-about but least understood generations," says Gil Strader, head of field force excellence and training at Syngenta. "We’re finding fascinating insights in the latest research that can help bridge this generation gap."
Meet the Farmers of the Future
Much of this research comes from a June 2016 study conducted by Millennium Research of younger row-crop growers from the Midwest who farm at least 500 acres. Among them, 77 percent are preparing to take over the family farm.
"These young farmers are serious decision makers who crave connection and communication."
"These young farmers are serious decision makers who crave connection and communication," says Lynn Sandlin, lead of market research and insight at Syngenta. "They want to have great business relationships with the people they work with."
These relationships are evolving as agriculture transitions from one generation to the next. While most principal operators are 55 and older, as noted in the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, younger growers are making more farm-management decisions.
Research reveals that these millennials are:
- High-tech/high-touch. Although young growers are more innovative and take more risks than their older counterparts, personal relationships are just as important as the latest technology to millennials. Miller values his close relationships with his local ag retailer. "Sometimes we communicate every day, depending on the season, especially at planting and spraying," he says. DeFauw also relies on his advisers, including his Syngenta reps. "I’m comfortable with them," says DeFauw, who prefers to call them or meet in person. "I trust them, because they don’t feed me a line of crap."
- Educated. More than half (57 percent) of young growers have a bachelor’s degree, while 11 percent have a master’s degree or higher. DeFauw earned his applied science degree in construction/design management from Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois; Miller earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife and conservation management from Southeast Missouri State University. Among the general population, only 33 percent of people 35 to 44 have a bachelor’s degree. "This is the first time the level of education has ever been this high among American farmers," Sandlin says. "Millennials are trained to be professional business people."
- Decision makers. The increased complexity of farming has thrust younger growers into significant decision-making roles at a younger age than their predecessors. "These young people are making hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of decisions," Sandlin says. The Millennium Research survey showed that two-thirds of millennial growers are the primary decision maker for their operation. The majority of them make the final decision on seed/genetics (86 percent), fertilizer (83 percent), grain marketing and computer/technology (82 percent), and precision ag and crop protection (79 percent).
- Information seekers. All the millennials in the survey use smartphones. "Millennials are information-hungry," says Sandlin, who notes that they gather information from diverse sources. DeFauw favors apps, Twitter, farm magazine articles and AM radio. He also appreciates insights from his Syngenta representative. "He’s very knowledgeable and shares answers that help me learn," says DeFauw. "I’m relying on him more and more to help fine-tune my management decisions." Millennials not only want to know how to do something, but they want to know the reasoning behind it, Strader says. "Information is no longer power; application is power. Young farmers want to apply information to make smart business decisions."
- Business-savvy. Business management tops millennials’ list of the most important skills needed for future success in ag, followed by crop marketing. "Young farmers are asking retailers to do something different," Sandlin says. "They’re not saying, ‘Don’t host a traditional summer plot tour,’ but instead are suggesting, ‘Maybe offer a secondary meeting geared toward millennials that provides marketing insights or financial-management tips.’"
- Anti-social media. While there’s a lot of talk about using social media in business settings, social media is not young farmers’ preferred method of communication. "Many millennials are ‘anti-social media’ and consider it a waste of time," Sandlin says. While Miller occasionally scrolls through his friends’ Facebook posts, he rarely posts any of his own content. If millennial growers use social media, they tend to prefer sites like YouTube that can teach them how to do something, such as repairing a planter or replacing a fuel pump. Of the survey respondents, 88 percent said they visited ag forums for farm use in the past six months. Sites like www.tractorhouse.com are useful for researching equipment availability and prices, while AgWeb and AgChat let growers share stories and network. "Young farmers want to have coffee-shop chats, but the local coffee shop is often gone," Sandlin says. "Online forums allow farmers to connect."
- Loyal. Millennials focus on connections to foster long-term relationships. "Millennials are loyal to those who are loyal to them," Sandlin says.
- Purpose-driven. Millennials view farming as a business and a lifestyle. "These young people are very serious about what they’re trying to accomplish on the job, but they also want to have a high quality of life," Sandlin says. In addition, millennials embrace a larger purpose earlier in life, compared with previous generations. "These young people have a broad, worldly view," says Strader, who notes this fits with The Good Growth Plan, which Syngenta launched more than three years ago to help address global food security by 2020. "They are purpose-driven and want to connect on a larger scale."
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DeFauw appreciates advisers like those from Syngenta, who understand young growers and want to help them reach their goals. "They work with me to find the right solutions and support the decisions I make to help our business succeed," he says.
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*From Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss, American historians and business partners who are credited with naming and defining the millennial generation.