Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Who Will Farm The Land

July 7, 1997

The dilemma of older farm couples. At one end of the spectrum are farmers and ranchers who are approaching or who are past retirement age. They want to slow down. Health and family considerations are factors as well as a desire to enjoy the freedom that comes with older age.

They are farming too big for their personal needs and goals. They know it. What they really want is to transition out of agriculture by turning over the responsibility to a younger farm family and enjoy a semi-retirement on the farm that fits their love of farming and the additional freedom they want.

In the history of their family, for a variety of reasons, their children have chosen not to farm. They are leading successful lives elsewhere. The parents want to continue farming and want the farm to continue.

Their limited choices mean they have to break with their land before they really want to. It isn't a satisfying way to end a farming career. Their dream of puttering around on a farm in older age goes out the window. Some hold out, hoping a grandchild might take their place on the farm. Unfortunately, age differences makes that scenario unlikely.

They may lease out the land to relatives, farming children of close neighbors, or to farmers with even fewer personal ties. Eventually they may sell the farm, not to an impersonal corporation, but a neighboring farmer who will continue to expand and farm bigger and bigger.

As many farmers in this position make this decision, there are fewer and fewer farmers on the land. Communities suffer the loss of people. Small towns lose some of their economic vitality. Collectively agriculture loses its tradition of family farming and takes steps toward bigger industrialized agriculture.

Young couples wanting a start in farming. At the other end of the spectrum are young couples in their late 20s, 30s or early 40s. They have learned to love farming through their own upbringing, their experiences with farm labor or vo-ag programs in school. Perhaps they have been dispossessed from farming opportunities through their parent's past farm business failure.

They have soil in their blood, an irrational love of cows, and a love for all things country. They live with an ache in their heart. They try their hand as hired employees or farm and ranch managers.

This may be a good experience because it keeps them on the land doing what they love doing and keeps their dreams alive. It might be a frustrating experience. They can't get to the position of going on their own. The equity considerations of getting into farming without family support are daunting. Many of these arrangements don't work out because of personality or management clashes, due mainly to the style of the owner and not because of their shortcomings. The reality of working for someone else grates more heavily as time passes.

Many of these arrangements may be compatible, but family considerations come into play. In the end, the young couple might be frozen out by the land going to the children of the owners or by a late, late entry into farming by a family member.

Children whose goals do not match their parents' dreams. The off-farm children love their parents. Many of them worry about their parents continuing to farm into their retirement years. They would love to help and do so when they can but cannot be a part of the solution. They have established careers and families in communities far from the farm or ranch. They can't provide Mom and Dad the soft landing from farming they dreamed of.

Besides the worry, they also feel guilty. They would love it if their parents could match up with an eager young farm family to share the physical demands of farming. This would allow their parents the chance to continue farming in a more limited way. A connection with a trusted younger farm family would also give their parents the ease of life and freedom that they deserve.

These arrangements with a farm family might include gradual buyouts and long term leases that protect the children’s own interests in the family estate. The arrangements might include opportunities for the younger farm family to gain equity on their own and gradually move toward independence. Meanwhile, and God-willing, this gradual transition might meet the needs of the older farm family during their semi-retirement years.

Our farm population is rapidly moving into retirement age. According to Iowa statistics, only one-third of farmers in their retirement years have committed to passing on the farm to active farmers in their family. Without some awareness, the other two-thirds will passively make decisions that continue to take people off the land.

Making the match. So how do we get these people together? Many State Departments of Agriculture have started beginning farmer programs and provide financial incentives, management support and matching services to help in this process.

Private groups also recognize the problem. The Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska is one example of an organization that is taking a leadership role in helping beginning farmers find a foothold in agriculture. The complexion of family farming depends on programs like these.