When Gillian Armstrong looked around the room during the New Jersey Farm Bureau annual meeting in Princeton last month, she saw scores of graying farmers, mostly in their mid-50s.
There weren't many younger ones - and that bothered the 20-year-old Burlington County woman.
"We're going to have to replenish those seats," said Armstrong, who plans on an agriculture career after graduating from Rutgers University. "I was 30 years younger than most of the people there.
"That's scary, but that's also an opportunity," she said.
Armstrong, of Chesterfield, is chairwoman of a newly reestablished program, Young Farmers and Ranchers of the American Farm Bureau Federation - an effort to reinvigorate the state's farming industry with youthful newcomers.
"This is our first year, the rebirth of the group," she said of the first meeting of about 30 young farmers at the larger Princeton gathering. "We're hoping the membership will increase over time.
"We need to unify young agriculturalists," she said. At the same time, "we may propose a mentor program, with older farmers working with younger ones," allowing each to learn from the other.
The Young Farmers and Ranchers program, which caters to the needs of members ages 18 to 35, operated across New Jersey until about 30 years ago, when it disbanded, said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. The 13,000-member bureau is a nonprofit advocacy group that represents agricultural producers and enterprises.
"The young people do a lot on the farm, working 14-hour days; they didn't have time back then to get their chores done, get in their cars, and drive to a meeting," he said. "But the opportunity for a new program is rising again because there is a desire among young people to network and socialize with one another."
The newcomers also are being drawn to farming in recent years because of agritourism and the emphasis on marketing locally grown produce directly to consumers, officials said.
In addition to having face-to-face meetings as part of the new group, today's young farmers also can network online - an avenue of communication not available in the 1970s.
"There are some great leaders in agriculture who are younger," said Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. "We want to encourage them.
"I've seen efforts like this in other states," he said. "We had it and it faded away, but now it's time for it to come back."
The average age of New Jersey farmers was in the 40s in the 1960s and has risen into the 50s today, officials said. "We need an infusion of young ideas and new life," said Suydam, 53, who farms 250 acres in Somerset County. "The young people are the future; the rest of us are getting older."
The new group will help disseminate "the knowledge of how to do things," said Isaac Zeng, 24, vice chair of the Young Farmers and Ranchers, who helps run his family's 1,000-acre farm in Ringoes, Hunterdon County. "That information is not being passed on.
"I'd like to see young farmers connect with one another as well as the older farmers," he said. "I'd also like to see us lobby and get legislation passed in Trenton" to help the farming industry.
If younger farmers "aren't coming up, a lot of farms will be sold to developers," Zeng added. Family members "who inherit farms and don't have the interest, knowledge, or know-how might sell."
With their energy, education, and knowledge of the Internet, the younger farmers have much to offer, even to the more experienced.
Farmer Rose Robson, 26, of North Hanover, Burlington County, takes online orders for vegetables and delivers them to homes. She also sells produce from tents at so-called tailgate markets.
"Agriculture touches all of our lives," said Robson, who helped restart her family's farm on 40 acres in Wrightstown. "It's so important to make farming a viable option for young people by creating a network."
Re-creating the Young Farmers and Ranchers program "is the best way to do it," she said. "If you have support, you feel better about what you're doing. "You learn from each other and increase your profitability," said Robson, who attended the group's first meeting. "It's good to meet others who work 18 hours a day and still have to get up at 4 a.m."
One of the youngest of the Young Farmers and Ranchers is Wesley Bouchelle, 19, of Columbus, Burlington County. He grows 10 acres of vegetables and attends Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, where he is studying commercial crop production. "I would like to see more young people involved in farming," said the Northern Burlington High School graduate. "I think [the new group] will bring all farmers together to work as one and learn from one another."
The farming industry "needs the energy level that's coming from young people," said Furey of the farm bureau. "We're rejuvenating and tapping into their rising interest in farming."