MINNEAPOLIS — A recent census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that Minnesota farmers are getting older, women are increasingly leading farms and more and more farmers are implementing conservation and sustainability practices for their operations.

The information, which is included in a census that is conducted every five years, is being used by the University of Minnesota Extension to provide ag programs in rural Minnesota.

In a news release, the Extension service said their work on the future of farming takes different forms, from county-level experts helping families navigate farm transitions to sustainability research and educational opportunities for students.

Extension focuses on farm transitions

In Greater Minnesota, Extension educators are working with operators to establish transition plans for when they retire. More than half of Minnesota farmers are over the age of 55, according to the USDA’s census, raising the stakes for orderly transitions.

“The principal operators are getting older and a lot of land will change ownership in the coming years,” said Rob Holcomb, an Extension educator in Marshall who works with farmers on transition and taxation issues. “Looking to the future is a necessity. It helps create an awareness that this is something that needs to be thought about.”

This year, the U of M and Minnesota State hosted a dozen workshops and retreats to train more than 330 farmers, ag professionals and families on transition planning.

The tradition of a son taking over from his father isn’t gone, but it’s expanding to daughters, other family members and new farmers taking ownership of a farm, according to the news release.

“The hard part of the succession plan is deciding who the farming heir is going to be and what type of financial transition is going to take place,” Holcomb said. “By doing these programs, we’re hopefully avoiding a fight.”

An eye on sustainability

The next generation of farmers will be especially adept at conservation techniques designed to make farm operations more sustainable while enhancing profitability.

U of M experts are focused on conservation, often going directly into the field to help educate farmers. Extension's Nitrogen Smart program, for example, trains farmers on techniques to increase yields while reducing the loss of nitrogen in the soil, benefiting the environment.

Educational opportunities for students

The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences offers unique financial and educational resources for its students. The Land-Grant Legacy Scholars program, launched in 2017, is designed to support students from Greater Minnesota pursuing agricultural or natural resources degrees.

CFANS students are eligible for a mentorship program connecting them to ag and food industry experts. The majority of graduates land a job within their area of study within six months of graduation. Food science and nutrition graduates have a nearly 100 percent employment rate.

The connection between farmers, the land and animals is fostered by Minnesota 4-H, which trains 65,000 students each year to help prepare them for life and careers on and off the farm. This month at the State Fair, U of M Extension will host thousands of Minnesota youth who will show off their skills in a wide variety of areas, including agricultural science.

Students receive career training across the U of M System. The U of M Morris’ Center for Small Towns connects students to community programs around Minnesota where they conduct research or gain on-the-job experience in their course of study, including agriculture.