Iowa is the number-one pork producer in the United States, but it has relatively few hog farms. Large factory farm facilities have replaced smaller family farms. The state lost nearly 90 percent of its hog farms from 1982 to 2017, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census data. And now many young people lack the resources and education to pursue a career as a hog farmer.

“Even though we live in rural Iowa, kids don’t have access,” says Melissa Beermann, Monona County Director for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “Everybody assumes that it’s just farm country, but most kids live in town or if they do live rural, they don’t own property. There are not a lot of hog farmers…But there are kids that want to be handling livestock.”

Beermann created The Breakfast Club, a program allowing youth to learn how to raise hogs at Iowa State University’s Western Research and Demonstration Farm. The Breakfast Club is free of charge, making it accessible to underserved youth who don’t necessarily come from a farming family. And it helps first-generation farmers pursue a career in agriculture.

“Our county is a pretty high-poverty county. Forty percent of kids probably are not going to be able to participate in our program unless we do something to help,” says Beermann. “So, I went way outside of the box.”

Often families will purchase livestock for these types of programs using interest-free youth loans. But when she was setting up The Breakfast Club, Beermann knew that the participants could lose money selling their hogs in the conventional hog market, and the families would not be able to make up the difference.

Instead, Beermann fundraised to buy 40 pigs for the program. She since partnered with Niman Ranch, which is a network of more than 600 small and mid-size farmers and ranchers across the U.S. Niman Ranch provides the participants with a guaranteed market for their hogs in exchange for upholding high standards of sustainable and humane farming practices. The program now averages 150 pigs and 30 participants a year.

“Niman Ranch is a perfect fit for our kids, because they’re not kids that grew up on a family farm…They don’t have US$3 million to go buy a couple of hundred acres,” says Beermann. “To me, Niman Ranch is a way they can afford five acres of property and they could actually raise livestock, they could have a small business.”

Read the full article about youth farmers by Emily Payne at Food Tank.