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.

Where have all the farmers gone?

Where have all the farmers gone? Most farms have been family affairs for generations. Baby boomer farmers had fewer children than their parents. It will be at least a decade before the coming wave of the new youth generation potentially fills the void left by retiring baby boomers. And, many of those children will be lured to urban centers by the promise of economic opportunity. Farming parents are very likely to have encouraged their children to go to college and seek “a new and different lifestyle” off the farm – leaving most of the nation’s highly agricultural states with the highest concentration of older adults.

Thus, we return to WPHA’s student dinner program. Events like these by industry companies and commodity groups throughout the U.S. can make a difference. In the many years that WPHA has been giving free dinners to college students in places such as Chico, Davis, Riverside, Fresno and others, students upon leaving seemed motivated and encouraged that a career in agriculture is, or could be, the right call.

To field their questions during these dinners, WPHA members volunteer their time to enlighten students as to the responsibilities, duties and opportunities available in their selected fields of interest. It is typical on any given evening that more than 50 students show up, along with 12 to 15 industry reps. Additionally, students have the opportunity to have their resumes placed on file for WPHA companies to sort through when they have employment vacancies.

And slowly but surely minds are changing. According to surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs in agriculture grew by 21.8 percent from 2005 to 2008. It is entirely possible that those figures have climbed over the last few years as the recession meant fewer jobs in construction and other trades as the ranks of the unemployed filtered into ag classes as career choices switched. And some experts suggest that enrollment was previously low because the bulk of students may have assumed that a degree in agriculture meant farming – when in fact it is today mostly science related.

Students now have a host of possibilities available to them, such as crop consultants, pest control advisers, plant or biotechnology research, international sales and marketing of plant health products, beer and wine makers, managers of farming operations, in regulatory agencies and natural resource agencies and much more.

I’m reminded of that famous painting by Grant Wood of the American farmer standing in front of his house with his pitchfork and his spinster daughter at his side. The painting is called “American Gothic.” The pair appears wooden, backward and illiterate. That was then.

Today that same couple in a practical modern-day sense is highly educated, politically astute, environmentally sensitive and culturally attuned to positive agricultural concepts, standards and practices.

It takes time for old stereotypes to fade away. The images of farming of yesteryear eventually will disappear for a newer more practical version filled with its tractors with GPS guidance systems and highly sophisticated “precision ag” equipment utilized by today’s “farmer.”

Don’t fret graying America. We’ll be in good hands with this new crew.