No way to cultivate young farmers

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By Sherry Robinson

U. S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan visited New Mexico recently to encourage students to think about careers in agriculture.
New Mexico has the nation’s highest average age for farmers and ranchers, at nearly 60, and the rest of the country looks similar. Among farmers and ranchers, the over- 65 crowd is the fastest growing group, says the U.S. Census.
The USDA has programs to help young farmers and ranchers, but the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau has said the red tape is a barrier. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is pushing for training, access to financing and credit, student loan forgiveness for new farmers, and tax breaks for selling land to young farmers.
I once interviewed a young guy whose dream was to be a rancher, but if you’re not born into ranching or have a pot of money from some other endeavor, the barrier to entry is quite high.
He had begun with 20 acres, worked for a livestock auction, and planned to bootstrap.
Any more, it takes a pot of money just for farmers, ranchers, and dairies to stay in business. Drought, market prices, rising costs. Even if the younger generation wants to keep the family land, they have to think long and hard.
Another bootstrap option is to rent or lease land, and this can work, but we’ve seen the down side when your landlord is the state.
At Dixon’s Apple Orchard, where floods last year destroyed anything the Las Conchas wildfire hadn’t already leveled, the youngish Becky and Jim Mullane lease from the State Land Office, which acquired the property in a 2005 land swap with UNM. Trees the Mullanes planted and improvements they built at their own expense are considered state property, so insurance money went to the state.
 The Mullanes have nothing left but the lease, which they want to sell to San Felipe Pueblo for $2.8 million; the proceeds would allow them to buy land and grow apples in Wisconsin.
Land Commissioner Ray Powell has said no, arguing the pueblo lacks 20 years’ orchard experience, even though the long-time orchard foreman would stay on, and several pueblo members have worked there for years. This argument also ignores the fact that the pueblo has the wherewithal to hire any experience it needs and to create jobs and economic opportunity.
Powell has offered to invest the insurance money in rebuilding, but everybody admits the property remains vulnerable to flooding, and the Mullanes simply don’t have the heart to stay. They’ve appealed the decision.
Recently former Land Commissioner Jim Baca blogged that he hopes Powell sticks to his guns. Baca has a problem with the Mullanes making a windfall from state land. Powell’s comments indicate his real heartburn is the 2005 land swap made by his predecessor, Pat Lyons.
Lyons wanted to keep the tract together, but the Mullanes wanted only the 65-acre orchard; Lyons threw in 8,500 acres for $100 a year. The Mullanes say this drought-parched acreage can’t be grazed; Powell thinks he can get a better deal.
Because all of us are the owners, and Powell is our representative, public lands come with rules governing bids and uses. Lyons is catching flak for favoring a private entity, but all he did was go the extra mile to accommodate a family whose orchard many New Mexicans visited every fall. They shouldn’t have to walk away empty handed.
The less sentimental Powell is catching flak for adding to the Mullanes’ grief. He also seems too eager to complain about Lyons – the campaign is over, Ray – but as the steward of our land, he’s supposed to be protecting our interests.
We have here willing parties. If they’d cool their rhetoric, there’s a solution that will satisfy them all. And by the time they find it, the Mullane children will have decided to become lawyers.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service