During the recent Farm Press Peanut Profitability Awards presentation held in Panama City, Fla., program advisor and research director for the National Peanut Research Lab Marshall Lamb made an interesting observation about the importance of youth in agriculture. Referring to Weldon Shook, a young man from Texas who was the Southwest Region winner, Lamb said it was vital to have young people bringing new ideas to agriculture, suggesting accurately that those of us who have been in the industry for so long tend to become stilted in our thinking.

The same thought dominated my mind recently as I helped to judge an essay contest, with entries from college undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the South. These essays were written in response to the Future of Southern Ag Student Essay Contest, co-sponsored by Syngenta and Farm Press (www.FutureofSouthernAg.com).

A few common themes emerged among these student writings, including the increasing need for Southern farmers to diversify their crop mix and the importance of integrating traditional crop production techniques with new technologies.

While agriculture in the South certainly has a future, one student theorizes that large farm entities will be necessary for the South to compete economically. This can be achieved, he says, by forming more farm cooperatives. Such cooperatives make crop rotations — including forages with cattle rotations — and the use of equipment more efficient.

Agricultural markets will continue to change, says another student, whether it’s the result of pest problems, market prices or other issues. With such a fluid business model, farmers must be dynamic. As long as the farm business becomes self-sustainable and growers have positive, influential leadership, Southern farming will survive and thrive, this student posits.

While recognizing the obvious benefits of diversity, one young author points out that there’s no need to abandon signature Southern crops like cotton and peanuts, saying that worldwide demand for these crops will continue to grow as the world population increases. In the current recession, the student says, U.S. food banks have requested peanut butter donations to supply impoverished families with a quality source of protein. And cotton is increasingly popular as a domestic fiber crop that is not derived from animals.

A majority of the students acknowledged, correctly, that agriculture is definitely a growth industry, especially considering that it is projected that the world’s population could increase by almost 50 percent by 2050. The challenge for farmers is how to best benefit from the inevitable increase in the world demand for food and fiber.

One of our student writers commented that with food crops so vital to the economy and to people’s health, money should be spent on research efforts to improve the areas of energy and water-efficient irrigation techniques and energy efficient harvesting mechanisms. Additionally and more importantly, says this particular essayist, developing new traits of seeds and crop production technologies are vital to increasing the yields and quality of crops.

The use of genetically modified crops was on the minds of many of the writers. Southern agriculture, in particular, will benefit greatly from the continued development of genetically improved crop varieties, says one student. Unlike other parts of the country, where one crop dominates most of the production, the Southeast supports a vast array of agricultural products, he says. The development of these improved crop varieties should be focused on four areas — an increase in productivity, an increase in nutritional content, a decrease in water usage, and increased pest resistance. Equally important, says the student, is that the benefits of genetically improved varieties be sold to the general public.

One student proposed a very interesting and viable agricultural business model with the acronym AIM — a three-tiered approach based on three equally important and interrelated concepts: adaptability, instruction, and marketability. The agricultural industry must continue to produce more with less, says this writer, and businesses that can adapt to the changes that are sure to come will survive while those that cannot adapt will perish. Therefore, adaptability is the foundation of this model.

We can bemoan the fact that the U.S. Agricultural Census shows that the average age of farmers in this country continues to increase. But the ideas and thoughts expressed in these student essays give us at least a glimmer of hope that perhaps the future of our industry is in good hands after all.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com