Russell Real is something of an exception. At 28, he's decided to stay on the farm his father started 34 years ago rather than pursue some hot new business trend like others of his generation.
“I'm not looking for the next big thing. Money isn't everything,” Real said at his family's farm and ranch southwest of Seguin. “It's something ingrained in you, I guess. I couldn't see myself doing anything else than farming.”
Data suggest, however, that fewer young people are being drawn to farming and ranching for a living.
That worries policymakers who are focused on expanding the nation's food supplies in the face of booming world demand.
“Attracting the younger generation into domestic food and fiber production is vital for any Texan who does not want to be dependent on foreign food like we are on foreign oil,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said in promoting a state assistance program for young farmers.
The aging problem is only one of several concerns that threaten Texas agriculture. Costs have gone up for ag supplies and production, urban sprawl has reduced the land available to agriculture, and shifting weather patterns have left Texas and southwestern states repeatedly parched.
Instead of falling into a tailspin, however, farmers and ranchers are focused on finding solutions. Many remain optimistic that an industry accustomed to challenges will overcome its latest roadblocks.
An evolving farm bill threatens the price supports farmers depend on and producers are just starting to rebuild after a record-setting drought. Water supply restrictions caused by the drought are expected to keep almost a third of Texas' rice acreage out of production this year.
“We've had more rain in the first three months this year than in all of 2011, so I'm optimistic. I hope we get back to more normal weather patterns,” Raun said.
Young farmers needed
Officials said that, while the U.S. is graying overall, the trend has accelerated in agriculture as producers live longer, technology allows them to stay productive longer and fewer young people opt to pursue farming full time.
Kathleen Merrigan, the U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture, said the 2007 agricultural census, the most recent data available, shows that for every farm operator nationally under the age of 35, there are six over 65.
The average age of the main farm operator in 2007 was 57.1, almost two years older than the average from the previous census in 2002.
In Texas, the average farmer's age was closer to 59. That was the second-highest figure in the nation, behind New Mexico's average age, 59.6.
The 2007 census showed 914 principal farmers in Texas were under the age of 25. That's less than half the number in that age group five years earlier. The largest category was Texas farmers 70 and older, at 57,227.
Even though farms and ranches are producing more food and feed products than they once did, that pace could weaken if younger farmers aren't found to replace older farmers as they retire or die.
Increasing food production has become particularly important since the world's population is expected to grow by 2 billion before 2050. U.S. population growth could slow in the coming decades, but Texas may buck the trend. Demographers expect Texas' population to skyrocket by 82 percent from 2010 to 2060 to 46.3 million.
Repopulating the agricultural sector “is one of the biggest challenges we face,” Merrigan said.
Part of the challenge in attracting new blood to the industry is the high cost of starting and sustaining a farming and ranching operation. Land and equipment costs have ballooned, along with seed, livestock, fertilizer, diesel and other operating expenses.
“Unless (young farmers) inherited the land, it's so expensive, how long will they last?” asked Melvin Grones, a Guadalupe County rancher. “It's a gamble. You have to have a lot of money to do it.”
One U.S. Department of Agriculture report said the average farm needed an asset base of more than $1.9 million to attain $50,000 in gross farm sales — the level at which most farms make a profit.
But if new farmers do get in the business, there are increasing monetary rewards — at least for now. Crop and livestock prices have jumped in the past few years.
Welch said an intensive, two-month marketing program sponsored by the extension service has been drawing younger crowds for a couple of years. This year, about two-thirds of the class looked like it was under 30.
Welch said unlike past generations, when parents may have discouraged their children from farming or ranching, parents need their kids' help more now as the field has become more technical. The outlook for agricultural prices also gives parents less reason to be concerned about how well farming can support their children.
“I think the pendulum is swinging,” Welch said.
Less land in production
The higher crop and livestock prices may be counteracting another long-term industry challenge: competing land uses that are shrinking the acreage available for farming and ranching.
As cities expand, they need more land on which to build. Younger generations not interested in taking over the family farm or maintaining open land, and ranching families struggling to make ends meet, often find selling to a developer an easy out.
The Texas Land Conservancy said the U.S. loses 2 million acres of farms, forests and open space to commercial development a year. Texas loses more than 200,000 acres of open space annually to development and urban sprawl.
Urban sprawl in the state's 25 counties with the most population growth from 1997 to 2007 — among them Bexar and Guadalupe counties — claimed 149 acres for each 1,000 new residents, said a land trends report by Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and the American Farmland Trust. The report predicts that nearly 1.4 million acres of agricultural land will be lost to the sprawl of those 25 counties by 2020.
Todd Snelgrove, an extension program specialist at the institute, said those losses will be heaviest in the triangle linking the Dallas-Fort Worth area with Houston and San Antonio-Austin.
But if agricultural prices stay high, it's less likely that owners will be as willing to sell acreage to real estate developers or to convert property to wildlife management uses.
“The general rule is, if they can continue to make a living off the land, they're likely not going to sell,” Snelgrove said.
Droughts create doubts
Texas farmers and ranchers always have been at the mercy of the state's turbulent weather, but several droughts this decade have shaken the industry's confidence and persuaded some producers to try something else.
The record-setting drought that started in fall 2010 left Texas' farmers and ranchers with $7.6 billion in losses — their most ever — the extension service said.
The extension service estimates about 660,000 beef cows were slaughtered or moved to other states during the drought. That was the largest single-year decline in Texas beef cow numbers ever.
Joe Parker, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said last month that the drought still was being felt in large parts of Texas.
He expects water issues to be the focus of the state Legislature for years to come because, with the state's anticipated growth, less water could be available for agriculture.
About three-fourths of the cattle raisers' membership cut their herds during the drought because their feed and water supplies were depleted. Eleven percent sold their entire herds. How many will return to ranching is uncertain.
James Richardson, a regents professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University, said weather has been a big factor in the development of Texas agriculture. Development of more drought-tolerant crops will continue, he said, and new technology will help farmers use water more wisely.
Richardson said farmers around the country who A&M surveys are generally optimistic. They know they can't control the weather, but they buy insurance for the bad times and trust they will find ways to make money, he said.
Chuck Real, Russell's father, said he's proud his son is staying on the farm and will make room for his other two children if they want to share in farm responsibilities. But he said it will have to be their decision because farming and ranching are stressful professions with a variety of factors that a producer can't control.
“The only thing that's certain is that things are going to change,” said Chuck Real, 59. “How well we adapt to that is our challenge.”