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May 3, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
From the look of delight that spreads across his face when he talks about his girls, Chris Heins, it seems, is very much in love.
Heins is a 26-year-old sixth-generation farmer, and the girls he cares about so deeply are cows. His grandfather built the original farm after his family lost tracts of land during the Great Depression. He and his family have been raising cows and producing milk on this farm just outside of Higginsville for about six decades. From 2007 to 2009, with Heins’ help, they constructed all new facilities on neighboring land with a focus on the environment and the humane treatment of cows.Related Articles
Due to advances in technology and the local food movement gaining ground across the country, young people are becoming more interested in careers in farming. This trend is evident in enrollment in U.S. bachelor’s degree programs in agriculture, which grew by 21.8 percent from 2005 to 2008, as well as increased interest in the United States Department of Agriculture’s beginning farmer and rancher apprenticeship programs. Farming is becoming an attractive career choice, even for people who weren’t brought up in that environment or who don’t have a family farm to inherit.
Although he was raised on a farm, Heins wasn’t always sure he wanted to continue his family’s legacy. His parents encouraged him and his younger siblings to go away to college and come back to the farm only if they felt compelled. After earning a degree in business administration and finance at Concordia University in Nebraska, Heins did feel compelled to return to farming. Heins is so certain he’s living his dream that he just made an offer on a farm of his own, right next to where he grew up. He would continue to make his living at the family farm.
“Once I get my own farm, I’d like to have a horse, some sheep, some goats, some chickens,” he says. “The whole gamut. That’s just me. But I think to some extent, our generation is going back to that.”
Heins is right. With an erratic economy promising little job security and an increasing demand for locally grown and organic food, young people are turning to farming as an alternative to unpredictable corporate America.
During the recent recession, farming fared much better than many sectors of the economy. While the gross domestic product hobbled ahead at a growth rate of 2.8 percent in 2010 then fell to 1.6 percent in 2011, net farm income rose by 27 percent in 2010, and it’s projected to have risen another 20 percent in 2011, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hopes to see 100,000 new farm jobs created in the next few years, and Congress has created incentives for young farmers. Jim Rogers, an international investor and financial commentator, is encouraging young people to consider farming. The essence of his argument, according to “Want to Make More Than a Banker? Become a Farmer!” an article in Time magazine in July 2011, is the rising cost of food, the emerging-market middle class and the growth of biofuels.
“The world has a serious food problem,” the article quotes Rogers as saying. “The only real way to solve it is to draw more people back to agriculture.”
Innovations in farming technology are making agriculture increasingly appealing, with farmers becoming significantly more productive in the past few decades. In 1980, an average acre of corn produced 91 bushels; today, it produces 152. Dairy farming has experienced similar progress, Heins says. In 1944, there were 22 million dairy cows in the U.S., and they produced 9 billion gallons of milk a year. Now, there are 9 million cows that produce more than 20 billion gallons a year.
This increase in productivity can be attributed to three things, explains Heins: “Better genetics, a greater understanding of how cows digest and what they should eat, and better animal care.”
The Heins family takes great measures to minimize its impact on the environment through sustainable care practices. They want their 600 cows to stay clean and healthy, but removing dirt and manure requires that they flush the barns up to eight times a day, which uses half a million gallons of water daily. They devised a system in which they pump water into the barns from their lagoon, and as it washes back downhill, the bedding sand and manure settle out. The water goes back into the lagoon, and most of the sand and manure are separately reclaimed for bedding and fertilizer. These recycling practices, along with the need for fewer cows to create more milk on less grazing land, has decreased the amount of energy needed to run not only the Heins’ farm but also other dairies across the country.
MU has observed the proliferation of family farms firsthand, with its agriculture program growing as a result. In fall 2000, the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources had about 1,500 students. By the fall of 2011, the number of students had risen to more than 2,000, a disproportionately large number compared to the overall enrollment increase at MU.
Many college students are worried about the unemployment rate in the U.S. and the stress of fast-paced corporate jobs. For some, the best alternative is to go back to the land, where in between the feedings, the harvests and the business deals, it’s easy to imagine being a kid again.
Even in his mid-20s, Heins seems to approach his work on the farm with an enthusiasm rivaling that of a kid at Disneyland. He constantly reminds his Twitter followers (@FarmerHeins) that every day when he goes to work he’s living the dream. Armed with his business degree, which, according to analysts at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is the best college degree for the real world, Heins is content to use his skills in a rural wonderland of his own making.
“It’s still fun,” he says, grinning as he surveys his girls, happily chewing cud and batting their long eyelashes at him. “Just getting to work with animals all day, work outside, drive tractors and trucks. It’s so fun.”