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Jessica Murphy/MEDILL

A panel of agribusiness experts spoke to young farmers Tuesday about overcoming the challenges that come with being in a minority age group.

Young farmers strive to grow business while maintaining roots

by Jessica Murphy
Jan 30, 2013

Jake Leedle works for his dad on their 1,500-acre farm in Lake Geneva, Wis., where they have 1,200 hogs. “I’m looking to take it over,” said the 32-year-old. “I’m trying to make it better, expand and all that good stuff.”

But young farmers like Leedle have become a rare breed.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to find next-generation farmers to take over operations,” said Dick Wittman, manager of a 19,000-acre Idaho family farm partnership.

The median age of a U.S. farmer is 58, according to Top Producer Magazine, a farm trade journal. Only 119,000 farms – a mere 5 percent of total farms – have principal operators under the age of 35.

It was this minority, clad in plaid shirts, heavy boots and baseball caps that gathered under the ballroom chandeliers of the Hilton Chicago Hotel Tuesday to learn and discuss the future of their businesses.

How can young farmers move beyond being known as “Joe’s son” or “Bob’s nephew?” asked Jeanne Bernick, editor of Top Producer.

Youthful eyes rose from white linen tablecloths littered with soda bottles, cups of coffee and remnants of a continental breakfast buffet. The question had hit close to home for many.

“You have to establish your own identity,” said Bret Oelke, a regional extension educator for the University of Minnesota.

Finding a niche such as becoming familiar with innovative technologies is one way young farmers can develop distinct and marketable skills, Oelke said.

Raising millions of dollars to buy land and expensive equipment is another obstacle for aspiring farmers.

“Financially if you don’t have an in with somebody, I don’t think you can become a farmer,” said Zach Borchers, 24, of Gillman, Ill. “Everything is so high priced.”

Borchers along with his dad and brother farm 4,000 acres of land on which they raise cattle and grow corn, soybeans and hay.

Without being born into a farm business, Borchers said initial costs of land, seeds and equipment would be too great to start one. “But if you can get over that financial hump, you’d be alright.”

But for members of multi-generational farm families, times are good--at least for now.

“We are in the midst of a major boom in farmland values and sustained profitability for row-crop operations,” said Brent Gloy, a professor of agribusiness at Purdue University. Row crops include corn, soybeans and other grains.

Huge amounts of capital and low interest rates have driven up the value of assets, Gloy said, but a tremendous amount of risk still looms on the horizon.

“Picture yourself on a nice fall evening on your farm having a big bonfire,” Gloy said. “The federal government gave us a gift of wood called ethanol and biofuel policy. You put that on the fire and it’s burning.”

Southeast Asia purchasing massive amounts of soybeans was another stack of wood on Gloy’s metaphorical bonfire.

“We’re really cooking now,” Gloy said. “But what now? Where’s the next stack of wood?”

The government’s target for production of biofuels is about to cap out. Interest rates cannot go much lower. A short-term solution for some farmers worried about liquidity would be borrowing money now even though they don’t need it. Gloy warns that would be like dumping gasoline on the fire.

“It would burn up quickly and asset values would really spike,” Gloy said. “So we have to watch very carefully and not use a lot of credit in this environment, because if we do it will not end well.”

Guest speakers, breakout sessions and a panel of agriculture experts discussed and dissected economical ways to invest in and improve farm operations in a volatile marketplace.

One key to expansion and improvement is process improvement, according to Wittman. That involves analyzing every step of farm procedures and pinpointing areas where efficiency can be improved.

“If you have no clearly defined standard operating procedures, bad things happen,” Wittman said. Identifying jobs that are repetitive and replacing them with technology is one way to increase efficiency, but older farmers often resist that.

“The feel I get here from people is completely different from the 65-year-old farmers in my little network,” said Dan Weiss, 32, a farmer and agricultural loan officer from Shenandoah, Iowa. “It’s nice to hear from like-minded individuals.”

Rather than invest in new technologies that could pay off in the long run, older farmers find other ways to get by and make money in the short term, Weiss said. “It’s just a totally different mindset.”

Still there are those like Leedle, Weiss and Borchers who can’t imagine doing anything else.

“To me it’s fun. I mean you’re doing something you enjoy every day of your life,” Leedle said. “You’re your own boss and you get to be who you want to be.”