In an era when the farming population continues to get older, we asked four young producers what fuels their drive to go against the grain.
By Karl Wolfshohl and Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole, Denny Eilers, Peter Marbach, Ewan Nicholson
They may be young, but the producers profiled on the following pages weren’t born yesterday. They’re smart, savvy and have a range of experience that belies their age.
They’re also bucking a trend that shows the farming population getting older. The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show the average age of a farmer in the States at 57.1 years. That number was from 2007 and up from the 1978 average of 50.3. Furthermore, data show there’s been a drop of 21% in farmers younger than 45 since 2002. In Canada, the average producer age is 52 years, up from 47.5 in 1991. (For more data on the aging farming population and changing agricultural landscape, see Fast Facts.)
Statistics concerning the age of farmers tell us what is happening, but not why the farm population is aging. In short, it’s complicated, but is in part due to the fact that farmers are living longer, as is the rest of the population. Yet, as noted above, the number of young farmers getting into the business is falling, perhaps due in large part to the cost of entry—the average asset base of farms with annual sales of $50,000 or more (the average profit threshold for a farm, according to USDA) was over $1.9 million in 2007. The cost of land, equipment and inputs is more than many young people can afford.
So, why did these families choose farming, and what obstacles have they encountered getting into and staying in the business? There’s no one answer, in part because each of their situations is different; farmers work a range of acreage across North America and raise a variety of crops and livestock. But there were a few takeaways from our conversations: Each grew up on a farm and, thereby, had a leg up once they decided to farm, two have jobs beyond the farm to help ends meet, and all agree that they need to do more with less.
Finally, each of our young farmers said the main reason they got in the business was because they like the work, especially the independence and the importance of producing food. In fact, all four described their love of farming—the good times and the bad—with such enthusiasm that we finished these interviews feeling good about the future. While there may be fewer farmers, at least farming will be in skilled, caring hands.
Netherlands to Canada
Thousands of miles from family, an immigrant couple gets a helping hand from their new neighbors.
Michel and Hanneke Camps
Ages: 31 and 31, respectively
Children: Kevin, Lisa, Kim and Nick.
Operation: CP Farms, Barnell, Alberta; 1,750 acres of potatoes, sunflowers, small grains, sugar beets and corn. “We grow potatoes for French fries, corn for whiskey, sunflowers for the confection industry, sugar beets and small grains,” says Camps. Average value per acre of farmland and buildings in Alberta in 2007: $1,221; in 2010: $1,506.
Massey Ferguson® equipment: MF8680, MF8670, MF7499, GC2400, MF4880
Dealer: Hanlon Ag Centre
Goals: Grow the farm more, but not so large he won’t have a hand in the day-to-day management.
Having immigrated from Holland, Michel and Hanneke Camps bought their first row-crop farm on the plains of western Canada nearly 10 years ago. The couple has thrived in their new home at Barnwell, and their operation has grown to 1,750 acres of rented and purchased ground, the latter now valued at some three times the price of the average for Alberta.
Farming was a natural choice for Michel since he grew up in a family of row-croppers in The Netherlands. But living thousands of miles from his mom and dad taught him to seek help from many sources as he grew. He had to jump some hurdles and learned plenty of lessons along the way.
“I’ve learned to listen to people who’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have,” Camps says. “I’ve listened to neighbors and colleagues, people I’ve trusted,” he notes, adding that there are “a lot of Dutch immigrants in this area. It was nice that people could explain things to us in our own language when we needed it.”
He gives credit to numerous others, including, he says, the previous owner of his farm, who “helped us hang on until we proved to the processors that we could do what we said we could do.”
Another friend, Wayne van Giessen, a former boss, has also been a great mentor and source of information. “He had farmed here 25 years. Still, once in a while, we meet for coffee.”
Michel settled on his crop mix for highest potential profit and to have some control over timing of harvest and payment. “We grow frying potatoes because that’s where the money is,” he says. “High input, high risk, high return” is his goal here. “Beets give us good cash flow early in fall. That way we can store potatoes longer, making a better return.
“Corn is after potato and beet harvest,” he continues. “Also, I can sell corn to whomever I want. Wheat goes to the Canadian Wheat Board, leaving me with little control over my cash flow.” He’s into sunflowers “only because it looks like an interesting crop, no particular other reason. This is only our second year.”
Lessons have been many, the hardest being that “if you make a mistake, you’re going to pay,” he says. “Ten years ago my fertilizer bill was $25,000 and now it is $250,000. We had to learn to deal with that. If for whatever reason you can’t pay a bill right away, 9 times out of 10, our suppliers have no problem if we tell them that in advance.”
“We value long-term relationships with suppliers more than the lowest dollar,” Camps continues, adding that his Massey Ferguson dealer, Hanlon Ag Centre in Lethbridge, is one of the best of those suppliers. “My dealer got me into my old 8160. Hanlon trusted me and gave me the opportunity early on. They’ve been with me since day one. I do have Massey pride, and that is why.
“We’re in a very time-sensitive business, and frost is a serious concern in the fall,” he continues. “We need to get potatoes out of the field and into a storage facility in a 3-week period.”
Camps says his equipment is up to the task, but every so often something breaks. “When it does, the dealer keeps us going with another piece of equipment if needed. The Massey guys have proven they can help me get the job done, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Michel, however, says his most valuable partner is his wife, Hanneke. “Taking care of four kids, she doesn’t spend a lot of time in the field anymore,” he says. “But she keeps the paperwork organized and takes care of meals for a crew of 25 at harvest time, among many other duties. She’s a force to be reckoned with on the farm.”
Make Plans, Roll With the Punches
As in life, so it is in farming: Something worth doing seldom comes easy.
Luke and Libba Peek
Ages: 31 and 32, respectively
Operation: Collinsville, Ala.; 90 acres of mainly hay, plus 40 head of cattle and a few horses. Farm real estate, average value per acre in Alabama, 2007: $2,200; in 2011: $2,050
Massey Ferguson/AGCO Equipment: MF471 and MF271 tractors; Allis Chalmers 7045 and 7000 tractors; Hesston by Massey Ferguson 1756 round baler; 4855 New Idea baler
Dealer: Snead Tractor, Centre, Ala.
Advice: Keep working towards those goals. “We used to get so frustrated because we felt like we needed a new barn, a tractor, a new hay baler, and it seemed like there was no possible way we could get those things. But, then we stopped and looked back over the past 5 years. Little by little, we realized we’ve been able to do a lot of those things. We still have a lot of things to do, but we’ve accomplished a lot, too.”
Luke Peek offers a reason why fewer young people are farming these days. “It gets harder and harder to do every year,” says the producer from Collinsville, Ala, who also works as a welder. “In the older days, you know, people used to just farm for a living and that’s it. Now, it pretty much takes a job just to keep the farm going, and if it weren’t for our jobs, I mean, we wouldn’t have this place.”
So why do he and wife, Libba, farm? “Because we love it,” says Libba, a nurse anesthetist. “We do turn profit on occasion, but it’s definitely because we love it, not because it’s the easiest way to make a living, for sure.”
“It’s not a hobby for us,” adds Luke. “I do rely on my farm for income. I really do enjoy it, though. It’s been a part of my family for a long time, and I just grew up doing it.”
In addition to income, the couple says they farm because it’s a way of life. Farming offers a sense of independence, but also brings a community together when someone needs help. It also provides them the opportunity to teach their 2-year-old daughter, Halle, an important set of values.
“Both sets of our parents [farmed],” Libba says, and the farm required effort and hours from every family member. “It was a lot of work that none of our friends were having to do, but as I became an adult, I realized teaching your children about working hard … is one of the most important things you can do. You can’t tell your children to work hard if you don’t show them that you’re willing to do it.”
The Peeks still work with family. They live just down the road from Luke’s parents in a quiet northeastern Alabama valley, and their 90 acres sits among another 700 owned by various members of the family.
“Family involvement helps me out tremendously,” says Luke. “Libba grew up on a farm, too, and after she and I got married, she just sort of fell right into place and helps out. My dad, he’s nearby, and my mom, she grew up farming. It’s just like second nature to everybody, and we all help each other out and such.”
Sometimes that help comes in the form of sage advice, and Luke recalls what happens when it goes unheeded.
“One of my hardest lessons was that I felt I had enough hay to provide for my cattle through the winter of 2009 and 2010, when it got so dry here. We had a very, very, very slim hay production that year, and I waited until about mid-winter to buy more alfalfa, when was at its peak [price].
“So, yeah, I really learned a lesson, not just because of the hay, but because I didn’t listen to my dad,” Luke recalls, chuckling. “He kept telling me, ‘You better get more hay up than that; you’ll need it.’ That was tough to deal with on my part.
“The thing I’m always telling myself, though, is hope for the best; prepare for the worst. Anything can happen, you know, and of course you’re going to have good years, you’re going to have bad. And don’t give up on the good times—you just might have to wait on them.
A (New) Century Farmer
Given the choice, this Oregonian wants to farm.
Colby and Hannah Johnson
Ages: 33 and 27, respectively
Operation: Conley Farms; Cove, Ore.; 4,000 acres of wheat and alfalfa, plus 50 head of cattle. Farm real estate, average value per acre in Oregon, 2007: $1,720; in 2011: $2,000.
Massey Ferguson Equipment: MF8670 tractor; two Hesston 2170 large square balers by Massey Ferguson; three 9240 Hesston swathers by Massey Ferguson
Dealer: Robbins Farm Equipment, LaGrande, Ore.
Goals: “In 20 years, I’d like to see me starting to do what my father and mother did for me … passing [the farm] on to my kids.”
“Farming is really all I’ve known,” says Colby Johnson. “I mean, ever since I could walk I’ve been running around [the farm] with my dad.”
Not that he was forced into the family operation. “I guess the family has always left it open if I want to do it. They’re really supportive, but then they never pushed me at a young age, [in case] I ever got burnout or kind of lost interest. It was always up to me.”
The result is that Johnson is now the fifth generation of his family to work the same plot of ground—an officially designated Century Farm—in northeastern Oregon. “I love it,” he says. “It’s just the love of the land and … kind of being your own independent operation. What we do is important, helping feed the world.”
He’s also appreciative of the advantages he’s enjoyed. Coming from a farm family, his parents have passed on knowledge, contacts and, of course, the farm itself. “That’s what makes me pretty fortunate, because getting into the business—I don’t want to say I’ve been handed the business—but the nice thing with a Century Farm all of our ground, it’s bought and paid for. You still have to buy your seed, your fertilizer, your everyday costs. You’ve got to keep your equipment current, but I guess I’m so fortunate that I don’t have a mortgage payment.”
It would be really tough, otherwise, he says. “That’s why a lot of young people can’t farm, because I just think you can’t afford it.” In many places, he says, land prices are just too high.
Good labor, too, contends Johnson, is hard to find, which means most farmers need to invest in better equipment to get more done with fewer hands. “Technology is expensive, but it’s a guy’s friend. You can do more with the newer equipment, with less people, and I kind of think you save more money in a year’s time because maybe you don’t have to hire two or three people.
“The farming season is also getting longer, so you either have more full-time guys or you do it yourself. For example, that’s why we’ve gone with the new hay equipment,” he says of the Hesston by Massey Ferguson 2170 balers. “That’s one goal we’ve kind of worked, and I think we’re doing pretty well with that.”
On the topic of equipment and land costs, Johnson does offer one bit of advice to anyone getting into farming: “You don’t want to get overextended. You know, you never want to get too far into the bank.
“Everything looks good on the calculator when crop [prices] are high and crops are good. I haven’t been around that long, but long enough to know one thing—you can’t guarantee how high they’re going to go, but I can guarantee they will go back down. With the price of everything these days, it’s pretty easy to get in debt pretty heavily, and then it’s tough to get back out of it.”
h4 id=”Sass”>Looking For A Little Land
Kind neighbors gave a young man quite an opportunity.
Operation: Monona, Iowa; 1,100 acres of corn (including seed corn) and soybeans. He helps his dad feed 500 head of cattle a year, and they share some equipment. His parents farm 900 acres. Farm real estate, average value per acre in Iowa, 2007: $3,370; in 2011: $5,600
Massey Ferguson Equipment: MF9690 combine; MF6490 and MF8160 tractors
Dealer: Reiser Implement, Waukon, Iowa
Philosophy: “A bad day on the farm is better than a good day in any other job.”
All Doug Sass ever wanted to do was farm. But as a high school senior in eastern Iowa, where competition for land is fierce and with his mom and dad farming relatively small acreage, Sass was having difficulty visualizing his dream. That’s when neighbors stepped in.
“Retiring neighbors took a chance on a young guy, so I had the opportunity as a senior in high school to rent my first farm,” says Sass, who is just wrapping up his 14th year of operations. “It turned out to be a stroke of very good luck, and I hope I can do the same for some ambitious young guy or girl someday.”
Doug has learned much of what he knows about farming from his dad, Robert Sass, although they farm separately. “We get along fine; it just works better if we keep our businesses separate,” Doug says. “He isn’t on his farms too much. He stays busy managing a grain elevator and a trucking company. Dad and I talk back and forth about marketing and input costs—things like that.”
Doug hauls seed corn on contract with Monsanto, which fits in well with his core business of growing commercial corn and beans, since seed corn is harvested a month ahead of commercial corn in his area.
Doug still farms the land of those kindly neighbors who made his dream a reality back in high school. He has added to it and would like to grow a little more, but in his part of Iowa, where corn may average 200 bushels and beans 55 or 60 bushels per acre without irrigation, competition is keen.
“I’m fairly well established now, but if land comes up for sale or rent, you usually don’t even hear about it until the deal is done,” he says. “And even though I’d like to grow, I don’t want to be married to a big pile of debt. When there are good profits like there are now, I like to pay down some debt and maybe take a long vacation in the winter.”
This winter he’ll dodge the north winds for a few weeks on the beach at Pensacola, Fla., where his sister lives. Then he’ll return home to Iowa, charged up and ready for Year 15 of doing what he loves most. “There is nothing else like this lifestyle,” he says. “There’s something different every day. You walk out the front door, and there’s your work. You couldn’t pay me enough money to live and work in the city.
“Farming isn’t easy, but it’s so rewarding,” he adds. “In spring you put your crops in and watch them grow, and in fall the harvest is just amazing. If I ever call farming work, I’ve slipped up. Even the seed corn business is fun, although it’s 15 to 16 hours a day during harvest. In 20 years, I hope I can be doing the same thing I am right now. This is all I ever really wanted to do.”