Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Young Farmers Need Not Apply

This little snippet from Allan Nation's latest editorial (the one I referenced yesterday) really got my mind churning,
"The net result, he said [the 'he' in this case is John W. Phipps], will always be an ever-smaller need for replacement farmers. This huge implication for young people who would like to farm but aren't in line to inherit a large farm.

'Put bluntly, agriculture's problem with young people is we don't need them,' he said."
Here is what I think ... that statement is true ... that statement is scary ... that statement reiterates how difficult I think this farming thing can be ... and to top it all off it makes really feel for the students that I work with that have a desire to farm. Just a couple weekends ago I was chatting with a recently graduated high school student from my church who has a HUGE desire to come back and work on the family farm, but with only a few hundred acres does he even have much of a fighting chance (if he continues with what he knows).

Mr. Nation also relates this statement from Mr. Phipps,
"He said throughout his whole farming career he had heard that X percentage of farmers were 65 years old and would soon need replacing. And yet, due to the constant increase in scale there has never been a shortage of farmers."
Now, don't get me wrong I'm not advocating keeping farms small just because they are pretty and romantic. Or that we need to make sure there is a farm for everyone that wants to farm. As with all things I think there needs to be a high level of quality, but I believe there is something dangerous behind these "titan farms". As Mr. Phipps said, there is a problem when you have "ever-increasing productivity in an industry with a fixed land base."

So, do you think we can turn back the clock on this trend on a large scale? I think that those looking to grab a niche (maybe more on that tomorrow) can find a place, but will we just continue to have farms that are ever increasing in size or will the bubble burst? I would love to hear your thoughts!


CSA Farmer Girl said...

I guess I would say that if a young person wants to come back to a 200 acre family grain farm, that would probably not work. But if the young person wants to embrace the new era of small local farms and sell direct through markets or CSAs they have a chance.

If their family property is not within a coulple hours of a major metro area they may not be able to do so at home, but farming is still do-able. It is a diffrent kind of farming, more hands on, more marketing, more work per acre, but lots more profit acre possible. But they will usally NOT be farming the same way their parents did.

I think that required generational change in mindset is the main reason that children from ag families are getting out of farming at the same time people with no ag expeirence are starting 5-50 acre farms. But only if you grow a dream and not a commodity.

Steven said...

I don't know alot of details of large scale farming but I would bet that much of the loans for equipment and land are made based on how the farmer, and the bank, see the price of grain going up. I know that the guy that farms our ground is always growing and always getting bigger/newer equipment. I would imagine that if there was a drastic downturn in the price of grains or subsidies he would have a pretty tough time paying all those payments. Watching the news now it looks like anything can happen!

Hugh Goble said...

Hi Ethan - the problem's widespread. Its the same in South Africa. Maybe "Eat Local" will help. Hope so anyway.

Steven said...

I love the picture with this post. It made me wonder if they actually mowed the barn lot or Ultra High Stock Density Grazed it. :-)
That's some thick turf.

Unknown said...

You know, the problem isn't just that the farms are huge..it's that they're only doing mono-culture farming, so there's no built-in resiliancy in case catastrophe hits....and it will. It's like putting all of your eggs in a huge basket.)
Like CSA farmer girl said, they probably aren't going to be able to make a traditional living raising grain off of 200 acres, but they could certainly use the farm to benefit themselves with raising their own food and some side incomes (a "cottage farm").
The whole "Titan Farm" outlook completely ignores what a particular plot of land is best suited to provide, as well. I'll bet there's some great vinyard property that's being plowed under to grow corn right now, for example.

Steven said...

Ethan, Congratulations on the extra bedroom in the house. :-)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with what they are saying in a way. My mother owns a farm, but all of the family farms (over 20) are all farmed by one cousin. He plants subsidised crops, has big new machines (that he is always replacing) and says their is never any money. I think my mom gets something like $3K for her farm each year. When my husband and I decided we wanted to farm, we knew we wanted to farm differently, and everyone has poo-pooed us along the way. It is hard to get started, we bought a new farm (we didn't really want the pesticide laden land already in our family) that hadn't been worked in over 30 years. I think that is how most new young farmers will get back into land is by purchasing land that was converted into yard, or scenic views and re tilling it up as was done hundreds of years ago. land that is not valuable to the big farmer who does not want to put years of work into making the land workable, but who just wants to seed, spray, and grow. We know we have a long road ahead of us, but it is a road we are willing to travel in order to get where we want to be.

Anonymous said...

We have been discussing this very article tonight at dinner Ethan! But not as much about this part as what ANation had to say about the young, white "entitled" male in the USA. How scary! And we have a young, white, male in our midst (16 years old, thinks he's bullet-proof)that we are concerned about and wondering where exactly he will end up. Interesting observations and recommendations.

(still can't figure out how to log in)

Rich said...

"...but with only a few hundred acres does he even have much of a fighting chance..."

I think it is entirely possible to make a living on a few hundred acres while growing "traditional" crops like corn, wheat, pigs, or cattle, there are numerous examples of farmers making a living on that amount of land.

An example I like can be found at:
Although he is farming about 500 acres, this type of setup could easily be scaled down to the 160-acre size. (possibly even to the 40-80 acre size)

One of the keys is utilizing a rotational system that includes things like OP corn, small grains, clovers, and pasture along with livestock grazing to lower input costs, increase flexibility, and increase soil fertility. Having the option to save your own seeds with crops like OP corn and small grains along with lessening the need to buy fertilizers by growing clovers and controlling weeds and disease by rotations can start to insulate a farmer from high input costs and low grain prices. Feed your OP corn to some pigs (or your cattle if you are inclined), graze and/or hay your small grain fields, harvest your small grains, produce some high quality hay from your soil fertility building clover fields, and still have the option to sell any extra corn or small grains at the grain elevator.

Another key is reducing equipment costs; you don’t need brand new equipment to farm. Buy older used equipment, fine-tune your mechanic skills and fix or improve whatever is broken or worn out. Thirty years ago, one of my grandfather’s “big” tractors was a JD 4020 (about 95 hp), it pulled about a 14-16’ tandem disc and a 12’ drill, and he grew about 400 acres of wheat. Using something similar today, you could easily farm a few hundred acres of grain with a fraction of the expense of buying all the new whiz-bang shiny paint equipment that also comes with high monthly payments.

If you grow most of your seed, don’t need to buy much fertilizer, and have paid off “experienced” equipment, after you buy your fuel (always painful), anything you grow and harvest (or graze) is almost pure profit.

farm mama said...

I think there is definitely a future (and a need) for the small farmer, but it needs to be a new (actually a very old) type of farming. The name of the game is diversity and sustainability. I grew up on a small farm in Wyoming, only about 100 acres, and I didn't know vegetables came in a can at the store until I was 12 years old. We raised our own milk, beef, pork, eggs, chickens, and vegetables, and all of us kids (there were 8 of us) helped with chores and canning. My sister and her husband have a 40,000 acre ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and raise Herefords and Quarter Horses, but nothing else - no chickens, milk cows, pigs or garden. They do well, but they are on a large scale that most of us can't begin to match. It is a huge advantage for the small farmer to be within striking distance of a city, since marketing is crucial. My son and his family are taking over from my daughter a small (12 acre) farm about an hour from Charleston, SC and have dairy goats and chickens, and will be planting a large garden, fruit trees and bushes, adding a couple of beef cattle and perhaps pigs. We already have people standing in line to buy just about anything they can produce. The most important part of it, though, is that that is the life they want to live.

Ethan Book said...

Lots of good comments by everyone! There is some good discussion in this post. Here are some more of my thoughts...

-I obviously agree that there is an option if you are willing to work differently whether it is with conventional crops or otherwise ... if I didn't I wouldn't have this blog.

-On the flip side, I know plenty of guys that inherited land that are glad to rent instead of farm. One guy in particular I chatted with yesterday ... he owns 400 acres and rents it all out, he makes more from that than I do!

-Cloverbell, I too have noticed the thing you were discussing and plan on writing a little on that as I continue my breakdown of the column.

-Rich, you are totally right about making a living on a few hundred acres with "traditional" crops/livestock. The problem for many farmers is that they (just like most other Americans) want to keep up with the Jones' or do what is the most hip and trendy thing ... what they learn at ag schools.

Thanks again for all of the great comments!

Yeoman said...

What all this sort of points to is a systemic and cultural problem that is bound to create long term difficulties. We're divorcing the land from the farmer, and society from farming. That's a bad recipe all the way around.

The only real cure for it is also systemic, but it takes coming to grips with certain basic facts. One thing, as a society, is that we'll have to accept that being a good citizen, and good human being, isn't about buying all the crud you can acquire. That's the general gist of American society presently, and is behind the bigger and bigger mindset of all sorts of things.

Secondly, we accept, I think that having people employed on their own farms on the land is a good thing. We haven't accepted that they need help to keep corporations at bay in order to do that. That could be cleared up by prohibiting corporations from owning farm land, or rather from requiring that the members of those corporations derive at least 50% of their income from the farm. That would reverse this trend in every way. But people react to such suggestions by declaring that their restrictions on private property and free enterprise. They are, but by maximizing the number of "freeholders", so to speak, you increase a lot of individual liberty.

mhcs said...

Hmm. We're planning on farming "cold turkey" (not inheriting any land), and I'm not worried about being able to afford it. Well, somewhat worried obviously, but not to the point where I think it's impossible. Why? My husband's going to have a town job. (Which is why we're sittin' around in grad school right now.... 'stead of farming.)

Anyway, obviously it's The Dream to make a complete living off the farm. Why you have to do so to be considered a "real farmer" though is a real canard. In earlier times in our country's history, a lot of farm families still had another job around town at least until the land was paid off, if not permanently. Diversification wasn't just about growing different crops, it was about multiple streams of income even then. There's no reason to think a farm *has* to support a family single-handedly, right away, to be a real farm.

The best part is many if not most of the giant grain farmers themselves have off-farm jobs to subsidize their John Deere habit. There's no shame in being a "part-time" farmer. Especially if by "part-time" you mean one spouse farms, the other works. That's really more of a dual-career family if you think about it.

Yeoman said...

On farm kids leaving the land, I think that also points to another factor, which is somewhat unrelated.

For a very long time, there's been a certain duality of thought about farming and farmers in the US. On one hand, a lot of people have a romantic idea about farming, on the other, farmers are stigmatized as hicks.

The stigma, in rural families themselves, is not only there, but a lot of rural families, that have done nothing else, are under the illusion that life in towns and cities is easy and full of happy stuff. Happy stuff is the main focus of American life anyhow. Americans aren't citizens, people, or anything of the sort, they're "consumers". The point of any city is to "grow" so that "wages go up" and people can consume any more.

Pretty sad state of affairs.

So, in rural families, not only is it hard to step in to a predecessors shoes, a lot of times the family really doesn't want the kids too. Sadly, they're encouraging kids to do something else that they will ultimately find disappointing.

JRGidaho said...

I think the fundamental truth we need to remember is producing and marketing food is usually profitable, producing commodities rarely is. The best way young peple can start in farming without an inherited base is by producing food and direct marketing it. I know families who make most of their living on less than 100 acres because they intensively produce food on those acres.

My bias is pasture-based food production (I'm highly carniverous). Part of the reason there is so much opportuiity in pasture-based systems is the need for equipment is alomost totally eliminated. Even buying used equipment can lead to overcapitalization that bankrupts the farm and family. The less iron and dead dinosaurs between the sun and your customer, the more likely you are to be profitble.

If you're really serious about grass farming, it can be done with no tractor and no tractor powered equipment in most parts of the US. It's just so non-traditional it terrifies us. A lot of farmers have to own equipment just for the feeling of security.

JRG (I've been away for awhile)

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