Keeping the Values Going and Growing

March 25 - 2Grandparents, Parents, Children, Grandchildren. If you were raised on a family farm, think about where it all started. Has it been a generational farm for 80 years in the making? Or is it a new farm with just your father or mother at the start? Generational farming is a family farm that has been passed down from generation to generation to keep the values of it going and growing. Generational farming is a very important factor in today’s agriculture community. In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2012 Census of Agriculture, of the 2.1 million farms in the United States, 97 percent of those farms are family owned. Small family farms, actually make up 90 percent of the U.S. farm count Meanwhile, nearly eight percent of farms in the United States are midsize or large family farms, whether big or small, family farms are beaming with success. However, here and now, we need to realize that if we want to continue having successful family farms, we need to remember the importance of passing down the family farm. In this blog, I will discuss the need for generational farms, the challenges of generational farming, and finally, we will learn what it takes and how to prepare future generations for this difficult task.

FullSizeRWhy do we need generational farms? Well lately, I’m sure we have all been hearing this famous question: “How will we feed the world by 2050?” According to www.fao.org, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion by the year 2050. That is nearly a 40 percent increase from where we are now. This statistic could very easily frighten farmers into thinking there is no way I can contribute enough to help, but that thought is wrong. family farms together produce 86 percent of the value of farming and ranching. What would we do if family farms suddenly began to fail? According to www.start2farm.gov, the average age of the American farmer today is 57, and according to the USDA, the average age of the farmer has increased in each census since 1978. Former Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack stated that “We have an aging farming population. If left unchecked, this could threaten our ability to produce the food we need” (GenNext 2015). With the average age of the farmer increasing, younger generations need to step up to the plate and not just take over the farms but rather continue to increase the value of the farms. Not only is the aging farmer an issue, but financial values are as well. The USDA stated that the U.S. farm real estate value has averaged $3,020 per acre in 2015, and that’s only the average. It is virtually impossible for someone to get into the farming industry without having the preceding generation help. We also need to look at the increasing amount of technology available to the agriculture community. Aging farmers are less likely to feel the need to make technological advancements on their farm, such as auto steer and digital yield mapping. This is where, again, the next generation needs to step up. We have the skills and knowledge needed to make advancements in technology that can be useful to farmers. The importance of passing down the farm is extreme. As agriculturists, we will never be where we want to be by 2050 without generational farms.

Now, although the needs are great, the challenges can feel even greater. E.M. Tiffany wrote in the well-known FFA Creed, “for I know the joys and discomforts of agricultural life.” There is no doubt that passing down a farm from generation to generation is one of the most difficult tasks. One of the major problems that arise is how to treat all family members fairly but keep the farm as one unit.  In fact, this is often where the thought of the “generational farm” gets lost. Another important responsibility that can be difficult for the current generational farmer is having to educate the next on crucial information about the farm. All too often we hear about farms and ranches that get passed down only to be lost. If communication takes place between the generations before the farm is passed down, the farm has a better chance of surviving. Keeping up with technological advances is also a challenge that generational farmers face.

FullSizeR (1)Early mornings, late nights, long days in the field. Any hardworking and dedicated farmer will take on any task; but what does it take and how do you prepare? Well, dedication and determination doesn’t just come from anywhere. It’s a drive from within you that must act. It’s a beating in your heart that says “this is what my job has called me to do.” According to www.agweb.com, 56 percent of farmers report spending at least 10-14 hours a day on the farm. If you don’t have an interest in working long hours on the farm, then you won’t be able to find the joy in the job you do. When you stop, and think of the challenges, you can realize that generational farming isn’t easy. In fact, it’s something that just can’t be done unless you have the passion for it. However, there are group efforts in our nation that are working to prepare those who have a passion and dedication but just don’t have all the knowledge they need yet. Kevin Moore, a professor at the University of Missouri, teaches “Returning to the Farm.” This is a class that prepares students to overcome the financial and personality hurdles of becoming a farmer. Dr. Tom Field from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also teaches a “Family Business” class that equips students with the tools they need to have conversations with their parents about things such as succession planning. I personally believe that we need more efforts like these to help prepare the next generation.

Grandparents, Parents, Children, Grandchildren, and the list can go on. These are just four of the possible generations that can thrive on a family farm. Think of the sense of accomplishment someone could get from knowing that their farm has never died and never will. Generational farming is more than just land getting passed down. It’s a way of helping our world work more efficiently. It’s a way of learning and earning. It’s a way of life. If more people could see the need for generational farming, overcome the challenges of generational farming, and find the passion and drive to keep passing down the farm, then as agriculturalists, we can and we will succeed in the farming community and keep the values of our lifestyle going and growing.

 

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A Tale of Two Farmers

Peterson Family in hog barnThere’s a guy in Illinois who’s a farmer.  He farms 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans over several areas.  He is responsible for all of the business decisions for the operation, including which varieties to plant, when to sell what he harvests and for how much. His tractors and combines are huge machines. They are equipped with laptop computers and the latest GPS technology. As part of his income, he sells seed and cattle equipment to other farmers. He sits on the board of directors for a statewide farm organization, often traveling to meetings and conventions and providing input on the operation of County Farm Bureaus in his district. During busy times, he hires outside employees to help get the job done around the farm.

There’s another farmer, also from Illinois. A fifth-generation farmer, he takes environmental stewardship seriously, maintaining buffer strips next to water sources on his land. He uses contour planting and no-till farming. He and his kids drink water from the well on his farm.  He tends to his animals daily, taking special care when they’re sick. He’s up in the middle of the night – every night – during calving season to check on birthing cows and heifers and their newborns. Hundreds of school kids visit his farm each year for personal tours to understand how their food grows.  Three generations of his family work on the farm.

If you were forced to label one of these farmers as a “family farmer” and one as a “factory farmer,” which would be which?

Here’s the catch:  these two real-life farmers are brothers, in charge of different operations on the very same farm.

How can that be, when everything about the first farmer appears to describe a factory farm?  The answer is simple—the term ‘factory farm’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s a term used by activists to make people assume facts not in evidence. They know you’ll hear or read the term and assume it means something bad.  But do you know what they mean?  Do they mean a farm over a certain size?  If so, what is that size?  A hundred acres?  Five hundred?  Is it a farm that raises animals for meat, instead of just milk, eggs and companionship?  A farm that plants biotech crops?  Is it a farm that makes a certain amount of money?  Does it have to be all of the above—or just any one of the above?

If you Google “factory farm” you get about 260,000 results.  The first entry, from dictionary.com, defines a factory farm as “a farm in which animals are bred and fattened using modern industrial methods.”  Conjures up the image of robots forcing animals to mate on a conveyor belt while they’re being stuffed full of food, doesn’t it?

Wikipedia’s definition is this: “a systematic effort to produce the highest output at the lowest cost by relying on economies of scale, modern machinery, biotechnology and global trade.”  By this definition, a farmer trying to maximize efficiency to turn a profit – and using anything but horses and oxen to work the fields – is a factory farmer. As Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this year, “farming without a financial motive is gardening.”

We are blessed in this country to have plenty of food and many options … conventionally-produced food, organic, locally grown. The truth is that no matter the size of the producer or the type of food produced, a profit must be made so that money can be re-invested and the farmer can provide for his or her family.  Yet, the organic farmer with 20 acres or 20 animals is celebrated, but the conventional farmer with 500 acres or 500 animals is vilified.

Activists would have you believe that because someone farms a large number of acres or raises a lot of animals, he does a bad job; he endangers the environment and mistreats his animals. Not true. Quality assurance programs, regulations and inspection programs keep farmers accountable. And when someone tells you that America is being over-run by “factory farms,” know that 94% of the farms in Illinois are family farms. Beware of labels. They can be misleading, vague and even meaningless.

The above post was drafted by the Illinois Farm Bureau originally for their blog, Standing Out in a Field.