Aging farmers, heralds of a vanishing crop?

As small farms diminish in number, rural life changes; but farming's "Wal-Martization" may not signal the inevitable end of an era.

By John Seewer, Associated Press
Published August 28, 2007

PEMBERVILLE, Ohio - Roger Burtchin is approaching an age when others are thinking about retiring.

But he has no plans to stop planting corn and soybeans.

"Farming's one of those things that gets in your blood," he said. "Even when things get tough, you still enjoy it."

So many American farmers are working longer than ever before that one in four is at least 65 years old. Computerized gadgets that steer tractors and deliver feed to hogs allow farmers to work past traditional retirement ages.

Many stay on because they don't have a retirement plan or because their children have no interest in farming.

Within the next decade, those older farmers will be looking for someone to take over their operations and selling millions of acres.

Much of that land will be merged into bigger farms with fewer people working on them. Rural communities will lose even more young people, and a few will struggle for survival. Some stores that sell tractors and fertilizer will suffer.

"You lose a farmer here or a farmer there, you lose your customer base," said Burtchin, 60, who sits on the board that runs the local grain elevator.

At the same time, it's becoming more costly for young people to go into farming, and many of them see that they can make a better living by leaving the rural areas.

Schools and churches could close in some towns, especially those isolated in the Plains, if family farms consolidate and rural population drops, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

"If you have a few people who own everything, you have weaker communities," he said.

U.S. farmers produce more food than any other country in the world and are tops in corn, soybeans, milk and cattle, according to a U.N. agriculture census.

The most recent census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducted in 2002, shows that the average age of America's estimated 2-million farmers is 55 years.

"There's a real cause for concern," Hassebrook said. "We need a new generation of farmers to reinvigorate farming and our communities."

Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Iowa are among states trying to help young farmers by offering low-interest loans and tax breaks and by pairing them with established farmers.

Dairy farmer Sarah Mumm is just getting started on her own. The 23-year-old has 50 cows and rents a barn for them near Lancaster, Wis.

But she's the exception in the industry.

"I don't know a lot of people who are starting fresh," she said. "Only those who are taking over the family farm."

Young people have been leaving rural areas since the 1950s. Six percent of all farm operators are under age 35, but two decades ago they accounted for 16 percent.

Is bigger really better?

The effects of the older farm population and consolidation will hurt companies that supply farmers with seed and sell combines and planters.

"The farm equipment dealer will have a hard time staying in business," said Ken Althoff, who runs K&A Farm Equipment in Strawberry Point, Iowa.

Customers are dwindling, and big operators with more bargaining power are seeking better deals. They no longer come in and buy new equipment. They ask for the lowest bid and pit dealers against dealers, reducing profits, Althoff said.

As farms grow, their owners will buy supplies in bulk, said John Baker, president of the National Farm Transition Network, which helps beginning farmers.

"It's kind of the Wal-Martization of farming," he said. "These huge farms are not going to be buying a lot of product from local businesses."

The future is likely to bring two kinds of farms: those that are very large and produce most of the crops, and those that are small with a niche product such as cage-free eggs or habanero peppers and other ethnic vegetables favored by immigrants.

"Farmers will still be doing farming, but on a much larger scale," said Chris Henney, director of policy development for the Ohio Farm Bureau. "We'll see it operated much more like a business."

Finding enough young farmers to take over for older operators should not be a worry, and neither should be the number of older farmers, said Robert Taylor, who has taught farm management and economics for 46 years at Purdue University.

Though in charge of the farm, a lot of older farmers aren't doing most of the work but are leaving the job to a neighbor or family member, he said.

"They pretend they still farm full time," he said. "We've got a bunch of old people who, instead of going to Florida, are staying here and saying they're farming."

The changing harvest

Many farms - about 800,000 - have more than one operator, according to the 2002 census. Some are the adult children of older farmers or their partners who will likely take over the business when the older generation retires.

"You just don't need to worry that they're all going to die off," Taylor said.

Lionel Beaulieu agrees that rural residents shouldn't panic about their survival. Beaulieu is director of the Southern Rural Development Center in Starkville, Miss.

There's such a small percentage of people in rural America directly engaged in farming - about 6.5 percent - that the loss of a few farmers won't wipe out many towns, he said.

"The loss of a major manufacturing plant has as much impact," Beaulieu said. "Rural America is a whole lot different today than it was even a decade ago."

Farmers say what has been lost is a way of life.

A poll of Iowa farmers and their families found that nearly all of them think people in rural areas don't depend on each other the way they once did.

Most also said they spend less time with neighbors and don't get as involved in the community, according to the Iowa State University poll taken in 2006.

Those trends are sure to continue as the farm population ages.

"Some of those communities will survive, but the nature of the community will change," said Lori Garkovich, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. "Studies have shown that industrial farms change communities in many ways."