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As baby boomer farmers retire, a new generation is stepping up in the Mid-Columbia

Third-generation Pasco farmer talks about the industry

James Alford, a farmer in Pasco, gives his insights about the industry.
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James Alford, a farmer in Pasco, gives his insights about the industry.

James Alford is the son and grandson of Pasco farmers. But he was never pressured to carry on the family tradition.

If anything, his family made him find his own way into agriculture.

Today, he heads a diversified operation with interests in potatoes, grass seed, row crops, onion storage, seed potato cutting, a chemical application business and custom grow operations.

He’s growing non-GMO seed corn for a breeder in the Mid-West and runs a small poplar farm, selling pollen to a deep-pocketed European pharmaceutical manufacturer.

It’s a large and complex operation. And Alford is just 30.

Farming famously has an aging problem. But Alford may not be an anomaly.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirms that Mid-Columbia farmers are a graying lot, with roughly a quarter of farmers in Benton and Franklin counties age 65 or older.

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James Alford looks out at his crops of corn that can be seen reflecting from his sunglasses. He’s growing non-GMO seed corn for a breeder in the Mid-West. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

But the census also hints at a promising trend toward more young farmers and beginning farmers in the region.

“Young” means under 35. “Beginning” means less than 10 years experience, regardless of age.

Benton County had 234 young farmers in 2017, or nearly 9 percent of the total that year.

Franklin County had 176 young farmers, or 12.5 percent.

Alford, who serves as president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, is both hopeful and skeptical the numbers reflect reality. It’s a hard profession to break into thanks to pressure to consolidate and the sheer cost.

There are other ways to make a living, notably the tech sector.

But, he added, the average age of the farm bureau’s board of directors dropped to about 35 after he wrangled peers to join up.

Work on the family farm

As a student, he was indifferent to school until he enrolled at Columbia Basin College through the Running Start program. At 16, with a driver’s license in his wallet and a desire to earn money, he made tracks for the family farm he’d grown up near, but not on.

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James Alford’s crops of corn. He’s growing non-GMO seed corn for a breeder in the Mid-West. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

He drove tractors, worked on irrigation equipment, learned the ropes. He was surprised to realize how much he’d picked up about farming over the years, how quickly he mastered the language of farming.

By 19, he had an associate’s degree and a passion for farming. Seized by what he calls his “workaholic gene,” he jumped in. By 20, he’d secured his first contract, to grow potatoes for J.R. Simplot Co.

Hard work, good timing and a government-backed loan for young and emerging farmers to build credit helped him along.

Retiring baby boomers

The nascent “trend” is bolstered by another promising sign: The Washington FFA Association reports record membership.

Enrollment in the ag education group, which is contingent on being enrolled in ag education programs, stood at 11,640 Washington students last week.

The record isn’t an accident of timing.

Executive director Abbie DeMeerleer said interest in FFA has been trending up for five years.

“They’re enjoying what they’re doing in the classroom, enough to join FFA and do something with the knowledge,” she said.

Anecdotal evidence aside, agriculture struggles to retain young people, said Chris Voigt, director of the Washington Potato Commission.

Tight profit margins don’t compare well to tech salaries or other occupations wooing those willing to work hard.

But even Voigt confirms a younger generation is taking over. He credits retiring baby boomers.

“I think the years lined up,” he said. “Mom and Dad are stepping down.”

Alford received some help from his parents, in the form of cost-sharing when he needed access to pricey equipment in the early days. But he established his farm with the a loan guaranteed by the government, not his father.

He said his peers include a handful of young farmers who, like him, established their own farms instead of waiting for family transitions. Others follow the more traditional family route.

Still fewer are first-generation or beginning farmers, and those typically bring a connection to farming.

“There’s no one who came without a background,” he said.

First-generation farming

Rob Davis is a first-generation farmer who grew up near farms, but not on them.

Davis was inducted into the Mid-Columbia Hall of Fame earlier this year when he received the Rising Star award, honoring younger farmers for contributions to the community.

He’s served on numerous ag industry groups, including the U.S.Potato Board and the Washington Cattle Feeders Association.

Davis said he grew to love farming when visiting friends’ farms as a child. He studied agricultural economics at Washington State University. He began working on farms in 1999 as an employee.

He established his own in 2006, starting with nothing.

Today, he grows potatoes, alfalfa, corn and hay in Connell. He has cows and a composting company, as well as a hauling company.

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A drone shot of James Alford’s onion storage and part of his farm in Pasco. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-CIty Herald

He credits opportunism for the increase in younger farmers.

“When the neighbors quit and lease the land, then kids of the farm family next door take the opportunity,” he said.

For all the well-known challenges of farming, Davis called the Columbia Basin a good place for beginners for its access to the Columbia River and the stability of potato contracts.

“If you were a young person trying to start, this is the place to try to do it,” he said.

Mid-Columbia farms by the numbers

The 2,300 farms of Benton and Franklin counties generated more than $1.6 billion worth of fruit, potatoes, wheat, corn and other agricultural products in 2017, according to the USDA census.

The Mid-Columbia output represented 17 percent of Washington’s $9.6 billion agriculture sector, and four-tenths of a percent of the U.S. total.

Washington’s top five counties by value were Yakima ($2 billion), Grant ($1.9 billion), Benton ($1 billion),. Franklin ($632 million) and Walla Walla ($526 million).

Benton County derived 77 percent of its agricultural value from crops and 23 percent from livestock, poultry and products.

It is first in the state for vegetables, including potatoes, and tied for third for tree fruit and hay.

In 2017, Benton County had 1,520 farms averaging 404 acres. Total farms was up slightly from 2012 but the average size fell 13 percent.

The top crops by planting in Benton County were wheat (104,000 acres), vegetables (91,000 acres), potatoes (42,000 acres), grapes (29,000 acres) and sweet corn (nearly 20,000 acres).

Franklin County derived 74 percent of its agricultural value from crops and 26 percent from livestock, poultry and products.

It is tied for third in the state for vegetables, including potatoes, poultry and eggs, and tied for fourth for hay and milk.

There were 772 farms in Franklin County averaging nearly 800 acres in 2017. The total fell 13 percent while the average farm size rose 13 percent in five years.

The top crops by planting were hay (81,000 acres), wheat (63,000 acres), vegetables (51,000 acres), potatoes (30,000 acres) and corn for grain (15,500 acres).

Washington state’s top crops by value were tree fruits, including apples, worth $3.6 billion; vegetables, including potatoes, $1 billion; milk, $1 billion; cattle/calves, $1 billion; grains, $984 million; and hay, $900 million.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.
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