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A new student group at Hancock College hopes to help budding farmers and ranchers take root and bloom into full-fledged agricultural professionals.

Last fall, eight students started the Hancock College Young Farmers and Ranchers, a youth-oriented affinity group backed by the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. With a goal of cultivating leadership skills and promoting a greater understanding of local, statewide and federal issues facing the industry, members hope the club will help them build connections and open the door to internships or other hands-on learning experiences.

"I know Young Farmers and Ranchers [groups] are big in other places, especially the [Central] Valley, but around here there wasn’t any option for us," said Marcos Ramos, one of the club's founding members. He said the group gives him opportunities he didn’t have in high school to explore careers in agribusiness.

“St. Joseph doesn't have any agriculture classes or FFA, but it’s always what I wanted to do,” he said. “So when I came to Hancock it’s what I mainly [chose to focus] on."

Hancock administrators revitalized their dormant agricultural program last July as part of a two-year plan to prepare students for local jobs and four-year degrees in agriculture. Erin Krier, who was hired as one of the first instructors for the new program, said groups like the Young Farmers and Ranchers club — in addition to the new courses — provide much-needed support for young professionals pursuing a career in agriculture.

"The population of farmers in America is aging, and there aren't young people filling those gaps," she said.

The last agricultural census, which was conducted in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showed the average age of farm operators jumped by 2.1-percent, rising to 58.3 from 57.1-years-old. Additional demographic data collected by the ag census shows that only 6 percent of principal farm operators are under the age of 35.

“They're too young right now — they're not farmers yet because they're still studying to be in agriculture — but in the future they will be in the industry,” Krier said.

For the Young Farmers and Ranchers club’s roughly 30 members, participating in the club’s general meetings and events strengthens their link to the Farm Bureau’s professional members. Krier said it’s a good opportunity for students like second-year agribusiness major Jorge Coronel, who would not have connections to ag industry professionals.

Coronel said he chose to pursue a degree in agribusiness after switching over from a course of study in music.

“I don't have any connections to the ag industry, so I feel like I have to come to college and find a way to the ag industry to make it in,” he said, calling groups like the Young Farmers and Ranchers club “important for the younger generation.”

 “Ag is a big industry in our region,” added Katie Tonascia, a first-year agriscience major. Her interests in livestock and farming influenced her field of study, and motivate her to transfer to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“To inform others about agriculture is what we should do,” she said.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.