Over half of the farmers in the United States are fifty-five years old or older. Youth are not following in their elders footsteps in this industry. And yet, there are plenty of new developments in farming that make it well worth reconsidering.
What are some of those new developments? These days a farmer without a business plan is a vulnerable farmer. A farmer’s skill set is changing rapidly and significantly. Fifty years ago it was all about chemicals and how to get maximum yields per acre with deep tilling and lots of insecticides and fertilizers. That is all changing towards a more natural approach. Family farms are reconsidering their best options and to do that takes careful business deliberation.
It used to be that a family passed along farming skills to the next generation of the family by working together and learning farming skills on the job. But that is not happening as much today. The generation of chemical-using farmers in the second half of the twentieth century left a bad impression on their children. Many of those farmers had health problems, often cancer, as a result of working with highly concentrated agro-chemicals. Those farmers’ children frequently left the farm seeking a different type of career.
The hiatus between generations in farming families opens the door for a new approach. That new approach is actually the old approach – it’s back to the family farm. Consumers’ concern for quality food and farming communities interest in raising quality food as a way of life have re-emerged during the last three decades. It’s especially noticeable in places like Iowa. The Practical Farmers of Iowa was founded in 1985 with the purpose of “strengthening farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.”
Local farmers in Iowa wanted to find out what was working best on their family owned farms by studying the problems themselves, finding the answers themselves and sharing what they learned among themselves. There is also a broad range of ages among the farmers so older farmers were available to mentor and help younger farmers, but information flowed and still flows up and down the farmer age spectrum.
Among the Practical Farmers of Iowa, beginning farmers are mostly in the 20s and 30s age bracket, although there are some 40s and even 50s year old farmers starting out. The mentors matched with these beginning farmers tend to be in their 40s and older. Fundamentally wisdom is being passed along, but it’s wisdom earned by sharing. Of course some of the farming wisdom is the old fashioned hard earned from years of farming, but there is a new approach too. By talking among themselves about their problems and their solutions farming wisdom is generated and shared among the members.
At this point there are over 3,000 members and still growing, including about 12% of the members coming from outside the state of Iowa. To keep this burgeoning group together digital tools are now used in a variety of ways. The community communicates through their website and by reading a weekly digital newsletter. But if you study the website you’ll find there are quite a few specialized sub-groups within the larger organization.
For example, if you click on the “Member Priorities” tab in the website’s top navigation you will find a long list of programs and areas of interest. Each of the entries on the Member Priorities page is a subgroup that has their own communications around their specific area of concern. They use emails to communicate and I image they get on their cell phones, or Skype, to talk from time to time once they get to know each other. Each subgroup generates their own wisdom by sharing experience and talking openly.
Transferring a Lifestyle
One of the most significant and practical areas of farmer concern in Iowa is “Farm Transfer.” Practical Farmers of Iowa have a sub-group on their website devoted especially to this problem. As the site says, “There is a tremendous farmland transition about to take place. Fifty-six percent of Iowa farmland is owned by people over the age of 65 according to Iowa State University. Thirty percent of Iowa farmland is owned by those older than 75 years of age.” the demographics mean both land and lifestyle transfers are imminent.
How do the elderly hand along a lifestyle to a younger generation? There are a whole new set of challenges among these elder farmers. Fortunately there are also quite a few articles written about how group members have approached this problem. Just the titles of these articles offers a window into the problems and some of the solutions. For example here are a few, “Farming and Non-farming Offspring;” “Choose Tenants With Your Values:” Tale of Three Sons: Equal May Not Be Fair;” “Retire and Get Out of The Way.”
Passing along the assets and wisdom of a lifetime involves family issues, financial issues and practical decision-making. A resource like the Practical Farmers of Iowa is an ideal arrangement for aiding this problem and many others that occur among farm communities. At Practical Farmers of Iowa a combination of information sharing, digital tools, and multi-generational interaction all come together.