Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The myth of young farmers

I recieved an email today, which I've copied a bit of, below:

American Meat, the pro-farmer documentary that examines hog, cattle and chicken production in the United States is coming to Washington State. [...] We are interviewing young farmers in each of the 10 locations we travel to... creen the film and were wondering if you would be interested in being part of our Video Series in Washington.
To give you an idea what some of these videos look like here are links to Young Farmer Videos from Missouri and Iowa:
We are interested in finding both conventional and alternative farmers in Washington while we are there from November 12th - November 19th. If you are or can point us in the right direction of young (under 35) farmers that might be interested we would greatly appreciate it.
Through this series we hope to inspire and help generations to come who are thinking about farming as a career."
This is something that I've run into many times.  The local food movement seems to have a fascination with young farmers.  Here they're pretty explicit about it -- if you're over 35, they'd rather not hear from you.  I like that honesty.  It's nice when it's clear.  Most of the time it's just implicit. 
So I watched the two videos (links above) and both of the people there were what I call inherited land farmers.  The fellow in missouri is farming land his grandfather bought in the 1970s, and the guy in iowa is working on his dads farm.   

Take home lesson:   You can only farm if you inherit your land. 

Farming, at the scale that you can make a living off your farm, requires money.  Depending on the type of farming you do, it can take quite a bit of money -- Tim, over at Natures Harmony, has spent the better part of a million bucks setting up his farm.  He hates it when I say it, but it's true.   He's milking less than 20 cows. I don't see how he'll ever make a profit, but I guess writing books will help. 

I use him as an example of a fellow who wants to farm and didn't inherit his land.  His solution?  Go make a million bucks somewhere else and use that money to start his farm. 

So lets look at the Missouri guy again.  How about we interview grandpa about how he got the money to buy that land, and what the challenges were, and see what he has to say about becoming a farmer.  Clearly he's done well, and his son (and HIS son!) are still involved with farming.  In this case, I think that grandpa is the hero.  No fault to grandson -- I'm sure he works hard.

John Deere model 210 disc
Old School farming, and didn't inherit his land:  Irwin

I was looking for a disc and found one about a hundred miles away at a good price, and I made arrangements to go over and look at it.  On arrival I met the farmer selling the disk, Irwin. 

One of the questions I ask when I purchase equipment is why they're selling it, and Irwins answer was that he was not going to be farming any more.  He's in his 70s I think, and he'd like to live closer to town.  So he's selling his farm and equipment and retiring.  The disc was in good shape, some cash and an handshake, and we had a deal. 

To get the disc onto my trailer I had to take it partially apart, as it's 15' wide and about 12' deep, and while I was doing that Irwin and I talked about farming.  He was selling the 60 acres we were on to one fellow, and another 60 acres to another fellow, and the third 60 acres to... you get the idea.  Irwin was, by most definitions, a very successful farmer.  So I asked him how he started? 

"I was a civil engineer for the city of San Francisco".  Whoa.   You didn't inherit the land?  "Nope, I bought this property in the late 70s, an d that in the 80s, and another in the 90s, and ..."

So you've been farming for the better part of 40 years now... I'm guessing that there were some times that weren't so good.  "yea, the 80s really were bad.  I had a tough time, and I had 4 kids in college, and it really made it hard, but we got through..." 

Isn't that sort of the vision we have of an ideal farming life?  Hard work, clean living -- supporting our family, and providing for them, and then being able to retire with a decent amount of comfort? 

But there's that awkward part in the narrative.   The part where you make enough money to be able to afford the land, and then work two (or three) jobs to keep it going.   Your farm job, the town job, and the other job you take when that crop just doesn't work out -- like my friend Paul who's doing his best to make a go of his farm, but had to take that off-farm job to make ends meet. 

There's  reason that most farmers are over 35.  It takes a while to amass the money to be able to get into farming, at least on land that you own.   I'm a lot more interested in the story of people who make it on their own, and who don't inherit their land, or have land that "...has been in the family since we homesteaded it in 1887...", .

How about you show a realistic path that people can actually follow? 

My great-great-grandfather, Samuel C. King was the largest landowner in Atchison county, Kansas in the 1890s.  Very successful man, but over the next 120 years, the land was sold, and so when I was born there wasn't much of the original land -- I'm still entitled to a burial in the family plot in Mt. Pleasant,  KS, but that's about it.   By the way -- my great-great grandfather earned the money that he used to buy his land from his off-farm job.  Funny how that works, eh? 

Most people today who are interested in farming don't have the luxury of having the land handed to them, and no matter how much you wish, there's no such thing as the land fairy.  But there is a tried-and-true way to get into farming.   


becky3086 said...

Very nice. I think you are completely right.

Hostetter said...


As a landless business owner your comments hit home. I'm not lucky enough to have a homestead handed down to me. So I continue to work at my day job and continue looking for property. I am also during this time trying to create a network that might buy products that I want to produce (mushrooms, or pork, etc) I'm 42 and have been told I am past the age that I should start farming by a couple of market farmers local to Atlanta Ga. This has made me work extra hard at creating this network because when I meet farmers (small scale value added producers) the ones that are struggling seem to have a great product but can't get it consistently sold and end up going back to work at the day job. What are your thoughts on that?

Bruce King said...

It's a lot easier to produce a product than it is to get it sold. You might produce the best product in the world, but if it doesn't sell you don't have a business.

I don't think that there's an upper limit to farming; "...For every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to Agriculture Department statistics."


I've been an advocate of starting small, making sure that your basic assumptions are good, and then expanding. Creating a market for your product and a distribution network is a good way to start; once the market is established you can sell into the demand that you've created.

Rich said...

All I know is that I rarely if ever see hand-wringing or worrying about whether "young" people are starting other sorts of businesses.

And, I don't see any concern about whether or not someone inherited their business or if the money they used to start their business came from somewhere else.

It takes capital, experience, and/or family ties to start any business, why should a farm be any different?

If you are young, have no relevant experience, and don't have any land or money, I don't think it's going to be easy to start any business, farm or otherwise.

But, I also don't think it is impossible to start a farm or business if your resources are limited.

plummerj said...

I like reading your blog because you lay out so clearly the business logic, as opposed to ideological logic of food. My father was raised on a 160 acre farm in Illinois which supported four generations well enough to fund college and trips to Florida. But when my father died, and we looked to divide the inheritance, I was astounded to find the farm wouldn't capitalize itself if we wanted any income. We had to sell a part to settle with one sibling that wanted to withdraw his share. Of course, in the old days the 160 acres could be farmed by one man and a hired hand. Now the machinery inputs are so big, one man, plus machines, farms several 160 acre parcels. I don't understand all the economics, but clearly to get the production, you need to leverage your labor with a lot of capital.

George said...

As a small farmer (I only use a few acres) under 35, I work hard on borrowed land. We barter for the home and the land. Luckily, they owner is wealthy enough to be able to afford this arrangement. He is a doctor and a pharmacist (2 degrees). His land was sitting unused, and the house was completely empty and vandalized regularly.

He wanted someone to manage the land better, and make use of it instead of it becoming an overgrown disaster (which it still is on many acres).

My wife and I are looking for land of our own yet, as this arrangement, while profitable for now, I can't see being maintained for the rest of our lives here. The owner doesn't want to sell either, so I can't see how we'll be here more than 5 years. When he retires in 10 years or so he wants to move back and farm it himself (no experience at all though, interesting).

Joanne said...

I'd like to echo what Rich said. It doesn't make any difference if you're farming or going into some other buisness. Unless you come from a family in that business, and even if you come from a family in that buisness (be it farming or some other profession) you're going to have to capitolize it from some source, be than an inheritance, family members, an outside job, etc.

I grew up in a construction family - tile, marble, mosaic and terrazzo. Eventually I became a tile and stone contractor (prior to retireing and going to farming full time). I was only able to do that after getting my journeyman's card in tile setting and having saved enough money to start my contracting business after having worked in that trade set for over a decade.

My contracting business made enough money that I was able to invest most of it into my farming business along with an inheritance from my father when he died.

Transitioning from one job/career into another where you're the entrepreneur is not unusual by any means, regardless whether you're transitioning into farming, a service trace, or manufacturing.

Jeff said...

I can attest to the difficulty of starting a farm with limited resources (and I'm also under 35). There are ways to at least make an attempt at it (eg rent land, co-ops, etc), but one can't expect to make much money as a small farm. This is an issue that I am going to try to expand upon in the next few months on my blog.

Unknown said...

My Grandfather was born a sharecropper. If you can call WWII a bit of good fortune it served as such for him and his brother. They saved nearly all of there earnings during the war and used it to make a down payment on the land I now live on.He worked the night shift in a local cotton mill and farmed during the day. Nothing has really changed it seems to me. If anything has changed it's our willingness to work hard. I mean really hard to have what we desire. Like many out there the once larger plot has now been chopped up to a point where I have but 15 acres. I have a job that provides well for my family but I still enjoy providing for my family out of my own soil. I have just found this blog but I look forward to reading more.