Look around your operation—look at your employees, your managers, contractors, yourself. Then look around the industry at university researchers, consultants, veterinarians, packers, associations and allied industry.

What do you see? You may not be looking for it, but there are a lot of folks with gray around the temples. As in most walks of life, the pork-industry workforce is dominated by Baby Boomers— people in their mid-60s to mid-40s. Sure, there is a chunk of 30- and 40-year-olds out there, but there aren’t as many 20-year-olds as there used to be, and the future trend line is pointing downward.

The pork industry is still benefiting from “kids” who grew up with agriculture in their veins. They aren’t on the farm either by choice or by force, but they’re still committed to the industry and to helping you run a successful business. The question is—who will step in?

About now, you are looking around and saying, “hey, don’t put me out to pasture just yet, I have another 10, 20, 30 years before that happens.” But there are additional pressures that could add to the attrition. As people start to retire from the industry, it places a heavier burden on those remaining.

These days cutbacks and belt-tightening within universities, companies and even production systems, lead to increased work loads, which lead to burn out and the prospect that some existing devotees will walk away.

“It’s not as much fun as it used to be, a 30-something university researcher said to me at World Pork Expo.”

That caught my attention. 

Think this is a premature warning? Think again.

A Kansas State University College of Business Administration study revealed there could be a serious food-animal veterinarian shortage by 2026. The demand for food-animal veterinarians is projected to increase about 13 percent during the next 10 years, but four out of every 100 jobs will go unfilled.

“Not having enough veterinarians out in the field to do adequate disease surveillance threatens our food security,” says Lyle Vogel, DVM, with the American Veterinary Medical Association. “There is a shortage, and it is going to get worse.”

The study concluded that improving recruiting strategies, loan forgiveness and improving the profession’s image are possible ways to attract more students to the field.

Some of today’s youth can and will make the transition from the urban scene to agriculture. But there are simply fewer replacements waiting in the wings for all jobs, and agriculture is appearing on fewer students’ radar screens. Who do you know that’s headed into agriculture?

“There used to be 40 (secondary) schools that offered a swine curriculum. That’s down to 20, and five of them have less than 10 students,” notes David Meisinger, director of the Pork Center of Excellence.

Agriculture already has a tough time competing with other jobs, and that will only increase. In some cases agriculture’s perceived image is keeping workers out of its employment pool. 

Agriculture is the leading immigrant employer, and pork production is right in the mix. Depending on what happens with U.S. immigration reform, the future workforce could tighten further.

This is not a premature warning, because the industry should have started seriously addressing this issue yesterday.

There are individual producers who are doing positive, proactive things—providing internships, on-farm research opportunities, scholarships and more. But this is an industry issue.

The pork industry has put a lot of money into promoting its product to domestic and foreign consumers. The industry has put money into finding pork production solutions for producers— even how to hire and manage employees. The industry is now starting to put more money into defining and promoting its image. Those are all worthy causes, but they won’t matter if the infrastructure—i.e. workforce— isn’t there to support it.

The agriculture industry, the pork industry and the food industry need to have a serious dialogue about who will step in. It needs to establish an innovative think tank to strategize solutions; and commit dollars to the cause.

A coordinated effort is important. After all, we are talking about the safety and efficiency of food production.