For eons now, the American way of life for many people in rural areas was going to work on the family farm. Corn, soybeans, cotton, and wheat were just some of the crops most commonly grown. Other families raised cattle, pigs, or sheep. Some trained horses for other farmers or to use as show stock. No matter what your farm did, it was long, hard work, and it wasn’t for the faint of heart.
The old story of the kid going off to the military, to work for a corporation, or even to hop into working for a processor for 20+ years before coming back to learn the farm was commonplace. A large departure from today, where many expect to be able to step in and take over at a younger age than their parents did. With parents being unwilling to hand over the reins (so to speak), the average age for a farmer went from 56.3 in 2012 to 57.5 in 2017.
Part of this is from being unable to securely step aside. They need to keep working because the smaller market farms are being picked up by bigger companies. $1 million profit farms have gone from making up 35% of the agricultural production to 46%. Additionally, the total share of farms has gone from 16% to 24%, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) most recent America’s Diverse Family Farms report. All of this comes from simply consolidating farms.
Vincent Smith, the director of agricultural policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor emeritus at Montana State University, spoke to the Daily Caller about the change. “The average farm size for farms that are producing the major crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, or cotton, rice, peanuts, and so on — those farm sizes are almost surely going to continue to increase. The way they increase is typically by buying up a less efficient neighbor’s operation.”
Advances in technology and bigger, more efficient equipment have made this possible. It also means being able to run a bigger farm with fewer people, and the rewards, once successful, only compound more. If you know what you’re doing, that is. Granted, these massive achievements are also putting the cost of entry much higher unless you are only growing to sustain yourself and your family. At that point, you are upside down simply due to other needs.
Howard Halderman, CEO of Halderman Real Estate & Farm Management and fellow at the Farm Foundation, doesn’t see this changing anytime soon either. “I think it’s really hard if they are not coming into an existing farm operation. He’s not going to be able to borrow money and effectively service the debt if he tried to just start farming from scratch. That’s really hard today with land at $15,000 an acre and combines at $750,000.”
Youngsters not coming up on a multi-million-dollar farm are getting their experience elsewhere, like their parents did and their parents before them. As Smith explained, “What happens in a lot of cases is that the son or daughter who comes back from the farm has had a 20-year career in another area — whether they chose to go into the military after college or whether they chose to go work for ADM or Cargill or whomever — a lot of the people who are 50 are actually just beginning to manage the family’s operation.”
An age gap like this means they are holding on longer and just driving up the price further for the next generation behind them. If we are ever going to not only see a change in these farming habits but also see a proper profit being returned on these investments, there needs to be more room for the small market farmer to return. They need to have access to the pricing big volume farmers get, especially since the quality is often superior.
Until elected officials step up to not only create better funding opportunities but also non-conglomerate tax breaks for farmers, we’ll continue to be stuck in the mud. This isn’t the kind of situation we as a nation need to be making for ourselves. Instead, we need to have options available to keep them not only well funded but to keep our stores well stocked.