There is a special opportunity for young people to speak out on the 2012 Farm Bill. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has initiated “The Secretary’s Challenge,” an online forum geared toward FFA and other youth in agriculture.

"These responses will help us educate Congress on what the younger generation is considering and thinking about,” Vilsack said in an exclusive interview with this correspondent.

“When you understand and appreciate that the average age of the farmer is somewhere in the neighborhood of 57 years of age, and 30 percent of our farmers are over the age of 65, you realize that there has to be a generation of folks coming into play here that will take those opportunities. This farm bill is really about shaping the kind of agricultural opportunities they are going to have. They actually have more of a stake in this farm bill than somebody who has been farming for 30 or 40 years,” he said.

In the next few years, this generation will need to provide 100,000 new farmers to maintain the industry.

“They need to weigh in,” Vilsack said. “There are a lot of different opportunities for these youngsters to weigh in and I think we need to listen to them because after all it is really about their future.”

Six key questions have been posed on the online forum for the public to consider and discuss. Additionally, there are educational resources regarding the 2012 Farm Bill, as well as tutorials for educators to engage students, generate ideas and encourage members to participate in the dialogue.

The 2011-2012 National FFA Officer Team will review and synthesize the information from the discussion boards and inform Secretary Vilsack and his leadership team at the USDA in December. James Flatt, the 2010-2011 National Southern Region Vice President, said he hopes FFA members will take advantage of this opportunity.

"The ‘Secretary’s Challenge’ is a never-before-seen opportunity for us to share our perspective on agricultural issues and possible solutions for the issues facing our industry,” Flatt said. “Taking part in this challenge is the chance for future agriculturalists to make a significant impact on legislation that affects our future. We must all be willing to take on this challenge, make a change and believe that we can make a difference.”