We hear the questions again and again. Where will the next generation of people in agriculture come from? How can we sow the seeds of interest in young folks? How can their interest be grown so they are engaged to work in Wisconsin agriculture?
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has found a way to sow some of those seeds and grow interest in agriculture.
“When we put together the Wisconsin Agriculture Youth Council we wanted to connect with the notion that agriculture is part of our past, present and future,” said Randy Romanski, Agriculture Secretary for the department. “This is a look to the future of agriculture in Wisconsin. In 2020 we initiated the first year of the Wisconsin Agriculture Youth Council to highlight a few items – agricultural-career opportunities in Wisconsin and sharing of state tools that are available to support Wisconsin farmers. We wanted to effectively engage state agricultural-policy development and we wanted to increase networking opportunities for the young people participating in the council. We had a goal of giving participants additional ideas and tools for their career, which we hope will be in Wisconsin agriculture.
“We wanted to make sure we had representatives from all over our state. That helped add to the layers of discussion because Wisconsin is such a diverse and unique state. The types of agriculture, the types of soil (and) types of food processing differ in different parts of the state and we wanted to get that agricultural diversity with the participants in the council.”
Drew Tuttle lives in rural Bayfield County near Drummond, Wisconsin.
“My favorite subjects in high school were chemistry and biology,” he said. “(Wis. Sen. Janet Bewley, D-25-Ashland,) had posted information about the (Wisconsin Agriculture Youth) Council on her Facebook page. I decided to apply and was selected. There are 15 members throughout the state. During the council meetings members talked with industry professionals and (ag-department) officials about issues that face our region. We also discussed issues in agriculture going forward. Every month we learned about and discussed a new topic. I left every meeting with new knowledge and an eagerness to ask questions at the next meeting.
“For example we had people from a watershed program present information about what they were doing. Council members would ask questions and discuss ways to implement more watershed programs in the future. Each meeting ended with breakout sessions where the group would break off the large Zoom meeting into groups of five to discuss how that specific program could be improved for Wisconsin.”
Tuttle has shown swine and sheep at the Bayfield County Fair with his family. The Drummond High School graduate earned academic scholarships. He also hosts a radio show on WOJB, a community radio station in Reserve, Wisconsin.
“Agriculture has always been in my background, especially with 4-H,”he said. “My parents have a small farm with swine, sheep and poultry.
“I’m going into horticulture. I found the presentations on soil science, soil preservation and proper fertilization most interesting. How do you fertilize without contaminating streams? We talked with professors and farmers about safe practices. The broad spectrum of topics was extremely interesting.
“During my junior year I was an exchange student in Australia. That’s where I got really interested in horticulture. We were assigned a case study in viniculture, the production of grapes. Learning about the production of grapes and wine was inspiring. I always knew I was going to be in agriculture, but finding my niche of horticulture was pretty cool. I hope to work in viniculture when I graduate from (Iowa State University). The Midwest Wine and Grape Institute is on the Iowa State University campus. I hope to get experience there.”
Council looks at myriad issues
Other topics the council have examined are meat security and safety, transportation and the history of agriculture in Wisconsin.
“We council members like to call ourselves a think tank of young people,” Tuttle said. “I was a member of the inaugural council (2020-2021). Members for the second council have already been picked. I encourage everyone who is interested in agriculture to apply for the council the following year. Members get to be part of the negotiation table to make change for Wisconsin.”
Ag-department officials are directly exposed to the ideas of council members at each meeting. Council members shape discussions with folks making decisions in state government and agriculture organizations.
High school juniors apply for council membership and if selected they serve during their senior year. The council term ends about the time the members graduate from high school. Applications for the council are accepted each spring.
Romanski said, “We are looking for incoming high school seniors. We want to catch them as their junior year is ending, but before summer starts. This year the council members for 2021-2022 were announced in May.
“We try to cover each of the disciplines that (ag department) has to offer. Our agency is a resource to our state and the agricultural industry. We interact with that industry in so many ways that people may not even realize. We wanted to expose the council to the fact that we have inspectors in dairy plants (and) inspectors in restaurants. We do sampling for hemp growers, we inspect meat-processing plants, (and) we have soil and water engineers who work directly with farmers on soil and health initiatives.
“We have people who promote fair trade. We wanted to expose (council members) to the types of things our agency does, but also as important is how our agency interacts with different parts of the agricultural industry so they see the important connection between state government, and policy and program activities that interact with the agricultural industry no matter where you are in the state, or what type of business in the agriculture industry.
“In addition to bringing in experts from our staff, we made connections to others. We had a day where they had an opportunity to talk to a legislator about how legislative policymaking happens. We had them connect with someone from the media so they could understand how the media interacts and tells the story of agriculture in Wisconsin. They had an opportunity to meet with the governor at their last meeting. We are looking for additional ways to bring in people from the industry, and the world of education and training to give an even-more-rich idea of agriculture in Wisconsin. “
Council partners youth, industry leaders
The meetings start early, at 7 a.m.
“When we set the council up we polled the council members and they helped identify the meeting time that worked best for them,” Romanski said. “The first group of participants, the students who were involved, were so bright and thoughtful. They asked insightful questions of the presenters and had engaging observations. They also came with ideas. What we found was that these energetic, bright students are involved in a lot of things. They are active in school, school organizations (and) community groups; they are busy. So we got the meetings in before school started.
“As we opened up the applications for the council we found young people applying who grew up on farms, but we also found people who didn’t grow up on a farm. Yet (they) took that science class that interested them, or they had an interest in animal health that led them to take an agriculture-education class. The council reflects the wide-open opportunity that is open to any young person in Wisconsin. It’s important for us as an agency to embrace and welcome anybody to the world of agriculture who has the interest in agriculture being part of their future.
“We hope the council is a springboard to the next generation (of people in agriculture). The groups we talk to – farm groups, CEOs of companies – everybody is looking for good hard-working, smart employees. Agriculture is a $104.8 billion industry in Wisconsin. One in nine people right now are working at a job related to agriculture in Wisconsin.
“There are a lot of opportunities for young people to be in the world of agriculture in Wisconsin. The jobs are there. The future of agriculture in Wisconsin is good. These bright young individuals have a great opportunity to step in and be the leaders of the future in Wisconsin agriculture.
“This is a great way for us as an agency to connect to the next generation and to give back. We want bright young people to realize that there is a future for them in Wisconsin agriculture. We want to open their eyes to the many possibilities out there. We are excited to make that connection and we look forward to our next group. I get a lot of energy out of talking to these young people. Our agency will continue to provide resources to get them ready for a future in Wisconsin agriculture.”
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is nurturing a new crop of young folks to take the reins of agricultural leadership through participation in the Wisconsin Agriculture Youth Council.
Visit AgYouthCouncil.wi.gov for more information.
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.