Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Who Will Farm The Land?

March 18, 1996

Who will farm the land? That is not an idle question. It is of great concern to agriculture families whose commitments run deep. Their goals include seeing their children staying on the family farm.

Who will be tomorrow’s farmers? I posed this question to Mike Boehlje, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. He talked about the skills and strategies farmers need to be successful.

  • The low cost producer. Producers can compete by increasing their production while keeping their costs low. Their basic management strategy is using technology and large scale production methods to cut costs wherever they can. They will take the price risks of the global marketplace. They will farm more efficiently and stay competitive with better methods. Boehlje calls this trend the industrialization of agriculture.
  • The farmer who produces a value-added product. These are the producers who compete by producing a specialized or value-added product integrated into the needs of the food processor, distributor and consumer. Marketing is the name of the game. To compete, farmers will need to gain marketing clout through direct contracting, buying or marketing cooperatives, alliances and networks.

The shift to being a specialty producer who commands premiums in the marketplace requires an awareness of technological advances. They will need negotiation and relationship building skills with business partners.

  • The low input farmer. There is a small but persistent niche for low input sustainable agriculture fueled by environmental and consumer demands. These operations will be more labor intensive and require a total systems approach to maximizing productivity on the farm. Mainstream conventional farmers will adopt many of these methods. This industry depends on building up a marketing infrastructure to promote and distribute their specialized and certified products.
  • The farmer who diversifies. Farmers who diversify their production can withstand low prices in a particular enterprise. Many farmers diversify by adding on-farm businesses to their main farming business.
  • The farmer with financial skills. Financial management and record keeping are a key to farming no matter what course of action a farmer chooses. Survival depends on having enough liquid working capital to cushion the down times or to grow when opportunities exist.

Stress causes many families to leave agriculture. People wear out in an occupation that combines high risks and hard work with uncertain rewards. When farming works, it really works and when it doesn’t, it takes a big toll on mental health and family well-being. Some families recognize this and choose to leave farming for a less stressful way of life. The cost outweighs the benefits.

  • The farmer with an outside income. Producers can survive in farming by supplementing income from outside sources. Off-farm work helps subsidize the farm. This is a high stress strategy in terms of personal time allocation and compromises with lifestyle. Yet many farm families will maintain their foothold in agriculture by persistent effort and sacrifices. Boehlje points out that outside investors - doctors and lawyers for example - can invest and maintain farms based on their professional incomes.
  • The farmer who survives on equity. If you have enough equity, you can survive in spite of not being heavily invested in one of these strategies.
  • The farmer who does custom farming. Many older farmers choose to lease or rent their land. This presents opportunities for farmers to farm without needing to invest in land. Custom farming helps farmers with off-farm commitments, retirees and those farmers who choose not to invest in expensive, specialized machinery. Opportunities for custom farming will expand.
  • Well-educated, beginning farmers. Iowa State University rural sociologist Paul Lasley points out that according to the 1994 Iowa farm Poll, only one-third of those farmers 55 or older plan to keep their land in the family. A fourth of the remainder plan to rent out their land as a part of their retirement.

Two-thirds of the Iowa land will eventually come on the market. Who will farm the land? Farmers who will be expanding their operations and outside investors. Public policy can support "beginning farmer" programs that provide low investment systems that bring young farmers into agriculture.

  • Farmers who have positive family relationships in farming. The succession and eventual success of the next generation in agriculture depend on relationships within the family as well. Children, particularly boys, who grow up with positive relationships with their fathers, who experience a positive lifestyle on the farm and learn the multiple skills of being a farmer, get farming in their blood. Poor father/son relationships cause young people to choose another way of life.

Eighty-three percent of children of farmers on sustainable farms want to come back to the farm. Only 47 percent of the children of conventional farmers are interested in farming.

Children of full-time farmers are more likely to choose a future in agriculture while children of part-time farmers typically do not. A stressful and hectic lifestyle coupled with marginal prospects for success figure into their choices. Despite obvious difficulties of entering a high risk, high stress occupation, there will be young people with a love for farming who want an opportunity to farm.

Who will rent the farm? Families in agriculture. It will be different. It will be tougher. Rewards are there for those who can stay in the game or find a way to get in.