We have to ask ourselves the question: As our older food providers begin retiring, who’s going to fill the vacuum in feeding an exploding world population?

That lingering question has pushed to the forefront lately with none other than Kathleen Merrigan, deputy U.S. Agriculture secretary, waving the red flag of urgency as the graying of America sweeps across our nation’s farms and croplands.

The Agriculture Department is beginning work on its 2012 census, and Merrigan is afraid the average age of the U.S. farmer and rancher will go even higher than the 65-year-old-plus segment that is the fastest growing age category in U.S. agriculture.

“If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don’t know where to begin to talk about the woes,” she said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “There is a challenge here, a challenge that has a corresponding opportunity.”  Merrigan, a former college professor, is making stops at universities across the country in hopes of encouraging more students to think about careers in agriculture.

Ag organizations such as the Western Plant Health Association (WPHA) have recognized for years the harsh fact that farming baby boomers by the tens of thousands will be stepping off their tractors in the near coming years and handing over their farming operations either to their kids (if they want them), or moving and walking away from their farmland all together.

It is this undeniable reality that has spawned various programs by ag companies and trade associations to make recruitment overtures to younger people who might be interested in careers in food production.  WPHA’s efforts include hosting at least a half-dozen free student dinners each year on university campuses throughout California to pique the interest of students in pursuing ag careers — but more on that in a moment.

Let’s first outline the problem: The pace at which America’s ag industry is aging out is unparalleled. The average farmer age increased 10 years from 47.6 years old to 57.1 in a short four years from 2003-2007.   Nearly 30 percent of farms are operated by people 65 years or older. And female operators are close to an average 59 years old. If you believe that most farming is done with multi-million dollar tractors and harvesters owned and operated by giant agribusiness corporations, you would be mistaken.

For example, agriculture is still California’s No. 1 industry, with 88,000 farms and ranches. A full 90 percent of those sites are small independent or family-run operations. It should also be noted that California agriculture is nearly a $36.6 billion dollar industry that generates $100 billion in related economic activity. Yet, over the years, there has been a steady decline in farm ownership.