By GRANT GERLOCK
Harvest Public Media
The American farmer is graying in the center.
Bob Hawthorn, 84, still works his 2,000-acre farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa.
These stories are part of “Changing Lands, Changing Hands,” a five-part radio series and TV documentary from Harvest Public Media about the aging of the American farmer. The radio stories are airing all week on KCUR FM 89.3. The half-hour TV documentary is scheduled to air on KCPT Channel 19 at 8 p.m. Friday. More information is at HarvestPublicMedia.org.
According to the U.S. census, the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57, and the fastest growing age group is those over age 65. That demographic shift puts the agriculture industry on the precipice of a transition.
Though many farmers are clearly working well into the traditional retirement years, thousands of farms soon will be changing hands. How that occurs could reshape the industry that drives much of the economy in middle America.
Working beyond retirement is a fairly common refrain these days — but farmers seem to work longer than most. In the last Agriculture Census, 25 percent of all farm operators were over age 65 compared with 5 percent of the overall U.S. work force.
Why do farmers keep working? For one thing, modern machinery makes it easier to work longer.
“It’s more you use your mind rather than your back, so you can go longer,” said Mike Duffy, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.
Duffy said there’s also an economic incentive. Many farmers are making more money today than just about any time in their careers thanks to higher yields and high grain prices.
But there’s something else about farmers. In surveys of farmers in Iowa, Duffy has learned that regardless of the money or new technology, some farmers will just never quit.
“Farmers are farmers,” Duffy said. “And that’s who they identify themselves as. They’ll leave horizontal.”
Bob Hawthorn is that kind of farmer. At 84, Hawthorn’s hands and face are weathered. This year, spring came late, so on a bright April afternoon he was in a hurry to get corn and soybeans planted on his 2,000-acre farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa.
Hawthorn braced himself against the wind in the back of his red pickup and unstrung the top of a bag of seed corn. After nearly 60 years on the farm, he said, neighbors ask how long he plans to continue.
“They keep bugging me,” Hawthorn said. “They say, ‘When are you gonna quit?’ I think I’ll tell ’em I won’t quit farming till all hell freezes over. Something like that.”
The farm was started by his great-grandfather, Trapper Hawthorn, in the late 1870s. Bob Hawthorn left for a brief career in aerospace before returning to Iowa in 1955 to farm with his father, Fred, who worked on the farm into his 90s and lived to be 98 years old. Longevity runs in the family.
But after four generations, the Hawthorn family farm will come to an end. He has had foster children, but he never had biological children and never married. No one is lined up to take over the farm, but then, Hawthorn has no plans to quit, either.
“I’d be bored not having anything to do,” Hawthorn said. “I’ve also noticed that farmers, when they retire, buy a house in town and die of a heart attack about in the next year. It seems like farmers have to keep going or they just fade away.”
Psychologist and retired farmer Mike Rosmann calls it the “agrarian imperative,” the drive to keep farming even when your body might be ready to quit. In fact, Rosmann said, studies show over half of aging farmers don’t have a will or an estate plan.
“I think it reflects perhaps a denial of the fact that somebody’s got to take over and I need to have a plan for that,” Rosmann said.
Turmoil in transitions
Randy Hertz, a financial planner with Hertz Farm Management, in Nevada, Iowa, says even as the average age of farmers creeps ever upward, few families make all the plans they could for smooth transitions.
“It’s pretty ominous the number of farmers that plan to retire in the next five to 10 years,” Hertz said. “Some of them have no plan, and the default succession plan is, well, I guess we’ll just rent it to somebody in the neighborhood.”
The 2008 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll found that 42 percent of farmers surveyed said they planned to retire in the next five years. But Paul Lasley, an Iowa State University sociologist who conducts the poll, said it’s tough to define retirement with farmers.
“The retirement process for many farmers may take years, even a decade or so,” Lasley said. “They slowly phase out of farming, and allow their adult children, who are often middle age, to take over, but they remain somewhat involved to ‘make sure the kids do it right.’”
That’s how it is working out for the Arganbright family in the western Iowa town of Panora.
Jim Arganbright, 83, three years ago started renting his cropland to his son Tom, the only one of his eight children who farms full time. Now, all Jim Arganbright has to worry about is the livestock — and he doesn’t have too much of that.
“I only have 12 cows and a bull and eight calves,” he said.
Tom Arganbright farms his parents’ 160 acres, several other rented fields and his own farm — in all, about 1,500 acres. He bought some of his acres from one of his uncles.
“It’s not just any ground you’re purchasing, it’s part of the original Arganbright land, and it’s up to you to keep hold of it through good times and bad and be able to pass it along to the next generation,” Tom Arganbright said. One of his five children currently farms with him.
Though Jim Arganbright is no longer farming, he said he has not yet established a formal plan for how ownership of his land will transfer to the next generation, something he knows he ought to do. He expects his children to keep it in the family.
Farmers in waiting
More farmers staying on the farm into their old age is one reason younger farmers struggle to find their place.
“We’re not short of young people who want to farm,” said Duffy, at Iowa State. “We’re short of old people who want to move over.”
One reason farmers are working long past the age when others might retire is that their golden years turned out to be boom years.
“Often they’re the only people that have enough money that they can keep doing it and can keep buying land that comes up for sale,” Rosmann said.
The ability to buy land is a big hurdle keeping many young people from entering the agriculture industry as producers.
“There’s no way I’ll ever be able to own my own ranch,” said Bo Bigler, 25, a graduate student at Colorado State University. He’ll graduate at the end of the summer with a master’s degree in beef management.
“The price to buy into it, it’s too much,” Bigler said. “The only way that somebody can get into it is if a ranch was handed down to them, unless they’re millionaires to begin with.”
A 2011 survey from the National Young Farmers Coalition showed access to land and capital to be the single biggest factors keeping young people from getting into farming or ranching. The results also indicated young people were concerned about the environment and interested in small-scale operations.
In Longmont, Colo., Eva Teague, 31, has learned how difficult it can be to start a financially sound pig farm. Teague is a grad school dropout turned farmer, originally from the East Coast. Jaded with academia, she moved to Colorado and began working as a farm apprentice. She bought her first pigs a couple of years ago and now leases 15 acres at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
“Didn’t have that much cash, so I paid for feed with the credit card just to get going,” Teague said.
Right now, her biggest challenge, like that of many other young farmers, is access to capital. She recently secured a low-interest loan from the federal Farm Service Agency, but it’s not enough to get her business off the ground completely. Teague still spends her days on the farm, and every evening working full time as a waitress. Next year she’s taking a big leap, quitting her off-farm job and relying on her farm income to sustain herself.
“I think a lot of young people want to work outside in sort of a ‘farm camp’ fun experience,” Teague said. “There are fewer people who would like to work really hard, like 50-60 hours a week for not a lot of money, which is what working on a farm is.”
Even though small farmers aren’t making large profits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the largest increase in farm numbers by far is for small farms, with annual sales less than $10,000 a year.
Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer and Luke Runyon contributed to this story.