New research on millennials in agriculture

Molly is a farmer. She's 28 and someday a day that isn't all that far off Molly will inherit her family's 5,000-acre farm.

As a millennial, Molly represents the new face of agriculture, an industry expected to grow by 70 percent as the world population grows to more than 9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations. Roughly 83 million people today make up the millennial generation and they relate to brands much differently than their parents. We know, broadly speaking, that they expect brands to act less like corporations and more like citizens. But how does this affect ag marketing?

Colle+McVoy conducted a custom qualitative and quantitative research study on millennials and agriculture. With the help of organizations such as the National Agriculture Marketing Association and Agriculture Future of America, we surveyed more than 500 people in 34 states. We talked to the next generation of farmers, students, ag educators and millennials who play supporting roles in agriculture.

What we learned is that Molly, like most of her cohort, is pulled in opposite directions.

Generation Contradiction

More than any other demographic group, millennials are living in contradiction. They are a generation connected to technology since birth, and yet they also seek out unplugged, technology-free experiences more so than their parents do.

These contradictions, or "tensions," shape their lives and purchasing decisions. Having unique insight into how to leverage and balance these tensions enables marketers to connect with and design experiences for "generation contradiction." We identified several tensions pulling on millennials in agriculture, including how they view their own economic security.

Booming Present vs. Looming Future

In spite of the global economic and political turmoil of the past 15 years, the agriculture sector has been growing steadily. People will always have to eat, of course, which creates a measure of job security. But farmers also tend to be smart, independent-minded risk takers who have made wise bets on crops and technology.

Millennials have only experienced the long string of good years in agriculture, so the risks are nearly invisible to those looking to get into ag today, whether they grew up on a farm or not.

"Our generation, we've only seen the good years of farming, good prices and little drought. We're spoiled and very willing to go into [agriculture] now because we've only seen the good and not seen the bad."

            Female, 22, North Dakota

At the same time, millennials carry the scars of the great recession. This has made them cautious slow starters, spending more time in school and living with their parents longer than earlier generations. They are surprisingly conservative when it comes to personal finances, which is affecting their decisions about agriculture careers.

"I just don't think I'll ever be able to afford it, it's not even in the cards for me."

            Male, 18–24, Tennessee

"We're currently raising livestock and buying property when possible. We're trying to save money and manage funds in a way that will allow us to purchase family land when the opportunity arises."

            Female, 25–30, Kansas

Now is the time to highlight success stories that show measured, considered paths into agriculture. Brands must demonstrate that they are partnering with farmers while acknowledging the risks involved. For example, WinField does this well with its Quest for Greater campaign, which shares real stories from farmers. Through a series of documentaries that highlight the everyday challenges and successes of farming, the company demonstrates its commitment to working with its partners and the resources it has to help them achieve their full potential.

Tensions Create Opportunities

We identified four other key tensions for millennials in the agriculture field. For example, most millennials seeking an ag career are inspired to feed the world but are simultaneously contending with misperceptions among people outside the industry. There's also tension as more women enter a profession dominated by men who are not all ready for egalitarianism. Understanding these tensions is not only essential to understanding millennials" purchasing decisions, it also creates unique opportunities to connect. (The full report of these tensions and the opportunities they create for marketers is available upon request).

While marketers were once able to draw a straight line from values to behaviors, that's not the case with the millennial generation. This shift won't be easy for some, but modern brands will make the leap.

Kjersti Hanneman is an insight director at Minneapolis ad agency Colle+McVoy. To view the full Millennials in Agriculture research report by Colle+McVoy, please contact Isabel Ludcke at