Young Farmers Get a Helping Hand
Without help from the previous generation, today’s young farmers find it hard to get started.
By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Christy Couch Lee
Even with the tremendous amount of change farming has undergone in the past half-century, one thing has remained the same. That’s the need for each generation to help the next.
“I was still in high school when Dad gave me a couple of little patches of land to farm as my own,” says 65-year-old Wilfred “Willie” Venvertloh of his early days working the land near Quincy, Ill. It was 1965, and 32 years later he was doing much the same for his son Kirk.
“There’s no way I could be doing this without Dad’s help,” Kirk admits. “In addition to the acres that he gave me to start farming, I bought my first farm in 1998 when I was still in high school.”
According to Kirk, his dad has provided more than just land to help get his son on his feet. Until his son started buying some of his own tractors and implements, Willie also provided much of the necessary equipment.
“I also tried to give him advice or ideas when I could,” Willie adds. “Whether he listened and took my advice was up to him,” he grins.
“In the process, he probably allowed me to make more mistakes than I even realize,” Kirk counters. “But I do know that I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made. On the other hand, I think the advice Dad gave me about never trying to hit the high in the grain market still holds true. If you sell it all at once, you can’t be playing the market. So if you sell some on the way up and keep watching for the market to change, you usually come out OK.”
Today, Kirk, 34, farms about 600 acres, an operation consisting mostly of corn and soybeans, but also includes wheat, hay and pasture. Willie farms about 900 acres of corn and soybeans, along with about 15 acres of pure-stand alfalfa, and together the two raise cattle. They’re also looking to expand, which, no matter one’s age, is difficult due in large part to the scarcity of available farmland.
Part of the problem is development. As the city of Quincy has expanded to the north, a few fields the family once farmed have been swallowed up by suburban homes, big-box stores, shopping centers and country acreages—forcing the family itself to move. In the meantime, other fields are being divided as the original owners pass away and the land is passed on to the children.
“We have at least a dozen landowners between us,” Kirk says. “I have five different landlords just on the fields I lease. We also have one field that we farm as one large continuous piece, yet it has three different landlords. On the other hand, we have one field that is too small to farm, so about the only thing we can grow on it is hay.”
“We’re in contact with some of the landowners on a regular basis.” Willie adds. “Others, who are a generation or two away from farming, just want a check at the end of the year.”
Ron Hanson professor of agribusiness at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, understands completely. “Some children care more about the family farm itself, while others are only interested in how much money they may inherit from the parents’ estate,” says Hanson, who grew up on an Illinois farm.
“It’s particularly hard on young farmers who are trying to build an operation when second- or third-generation family members decide they would rather sell than rent. Too often, the young tenant simply doesn’t have the money or the resources to buy it themselves, and the land goes to an older, well-established producer,” he adds, noting that good farmland in Illinois was selling for up to $12,000 per acre in 2013.
“I’d say the best course of action for any young farmer who is renting is to have an open line of communication with the property owner. If it’s a retired farmer, his desire may be to see the farm preserved as it is. So, he may need to form a trust, which continues the lease and pays each child or grandchild a portion of the income. The key,” he insists, “is talking about it before it’s too late.”
“With today’s land prices, it’s hard for me to come up with the kind of money that land is selling for these days,” Kirk admits. “Plus, some of these older farmers can afford to put down half the money, so they have less interest to pay too.
“Still, I want to expand when the opportunity seems right,” Kirk continues. “So, I’m hoping that the lower commodity prices will bring some balance back into land prices, where I can afford to buy or lease more property.”
In the meantime, Kirk says he is content with the arrangement he and his dad have between them.
“I’ve never been paid anything for my labor,” he admits. “I basically just trade labor for the use of his equipment,” he adds, noting that he did buy his own tractor last year. “On the other hand, I know that Dad will be farming as long as he is able to, but as he slows down and phases out of farming, I’ll be taking on more of his ground. Plus, I’ll be buying more of my own equipment that we’ll be using on his land; so it evens itself out for now.”
Since they both own their own pasture, Kirk says the family’s 70 head of beef cows are treated differently in that he and his dad both have 50% ownership in the herd. To better leverage the market, they also calve around 50 cows in the spring, while the remaining 20 are bred for fall calving. Although most of the calves are marketed at 500 to 700 pounds, Kirk says they do keep a few head back each year to feed out through the winter on 10 to 15 acres of corn silage.
“That just gives us one more way to market our crops and diversify the operation,” he relates.
Other than the corn used for silage, though, father and son store and market the produce from their respective fields independently. “He has his storage bins and I have mine,” Kirk relates, noting that his four-year average on corn yields is close to 225 bushels per acre.
“And we tend to market the crop at different times. More often than not, I sell when the market is still going up and he sells when it is starting to go back down. In the end, we come out pretty close together.”
Whether they agree or differ, Kirk says he and his dad remain close and continue to depend on each other in the day-to-day operations.
“I don’t know what else I’d be doing if I wasn’t farming,” Kirk admits. “I grew up farming and I like farming. So I’m grateful to my dad for helping me along. With all the overhead involved in farming today, I couldn’t do it alone.”