Editor’s note: According to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census, the average age of an American farmer is 58 and the average age of an Iowa farmer is 57. This is the last of a three-part series looking at the challenges beginning farmers face and their struggles to survive as they set down roots in the industry.
JEFFERSON — After a long day in the fields, Ben Barron, 39, walks into a Chinese restaurant on the town square wearing a plaid shirt and a blue ball cap. His wife, Danielle, 40, is a photographer. His daughter, Victoria, is 6 months old and breaks into a high-pitched coo if you look at her long enough.
Ben counts himself among farming’s “lost generation,” the people in their 30s and 40s who want to start farming, but can’t find the land, equipment, capital or support from the industry to begin.
Ben was born in Eastern Iowa, and his family moved near Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri when his dad bought a few acres of land to farm. They lost the farm during the 1980s’ Farm Crisis, and Ben started looking into the trades with the goal of starting his own contractor business.
He came as close as walking into an adviser to talk about a small business loan.
“As I was walking in, I had this thought, ‘You know, you better try farming,’” Ben said. ”‘If you don’t, you’re never going to be happy.’”
Today, he works at a 2,000-acre organic row crop operation with two other people and his boss. He previously farmed 25 acres for two different landowners in the area on the side.
He often starts work at 7 a.m. and gets home as late as 9 p.m., sometimes creating strife in the home.
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“When his time is so taken up, I’m not going to lie, it definitely does” create stress, Danielle said. “When he works 10-hour days and I’m with the baby all day, there’s some words.”
That work schedule is intensified during harvest. Ben and Danielle had only two days to take their honeymoon after they married in October because Ben’s boss needed him in the fields. Danielle can’t travel to New England or Colorado to shoot photos of the autumn leaves because Ben is wrapped up at work.
“If we had our own (farm), we’d be able to meander those curves of life a little smoother and live without as much friction in the house, but above all, I’m thankful that he works in a field that he loves,” she said.
Ben can’t be blamed for a lack of effort. Over the last decade, he has applied multiple times to a beginning farmer’s program that matches farmers nearing retirement age with younger people looking to get into the business, with the goal being an eventual transfer of the land.
The last time he checked, he was one of about 1,500 applicants hoping to get matched with less than 40 mentors across the Midwest for the specific program he applied for.
A majority of new farmers are not fresh out of college or in their 20s.
David Baker, director of the Iowa State Beginning Farmer Center, said the average applicant to that program’s farmland matching service is 35, while the average person looking to transfer land is in his late 60s.
He said a lot of aspiring farmers grew up in rural areas, went to college and went into the non-farm workforce before decided to pursue farming for a living.
“After you reach that age of 30, 35, if you aren’t married you probably aren’t going to get married by then, you’re having children, and I found a strong desire to raise children in a small rural community rather than a city,” he said. “I find a lot of the young people I work with are somewhat discouraged, disillusioned with corporate business life and want something different. They want to get back to their roots, so to speak.”
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When asked what his ideal operation looks like, Ben cracks a rare grin. He wants a farm between 100 and 1,000 acres, modeled after the ones that peppered America’s rural landscape in the 1940s and 1950s, selling a diverse range of vegetables and livestock directly to consumers.
“They want to be able to come out to the farm and see Sally the hog or Betsy the cow and pet it and know that’s where their food is coming from,” he said.
Ben estimates a 15- to 20-acre parcel to start a farm like that would cost between $100,000 and $300,000, a high figure to ask from lenders that are searching for relative stability in the corn and soybean operations. That figure also doesn’t add in the cost of seed, livestock and decades-old equipment, which he puts at about another $25,000.
Between his job and his family, Ben doesn’t have the time to build himself a full-time farm.
When the Barrons were farming on the side, they did get some help from Ben’s boss, who loaned them a tractor and a semi for harvest. He also taught them skills for the business side of the industry, giving them just a taste of what they could get if Ben was selected for a beginning farmer’s program.
“To even work on a farm with someone who’s willing to help us, it’s really amazing,” Danielle said.
But unless someone takes on the Barrons and gets them started with land, Ben said it’s extremely unlikely that he could save enough money to start the farm.
It’s not unreasonable that Iowa farmland stays trapped in trusts or is handed down from one generation to the next. Farmers work grueling hours in their fields for sometimes decades, and their land is usually their retirement nest egg.
But Ben doesn’t see why that holds back today’s farmers from helping out the generation that wants to follow them, especially since many older farmers got help buying their land with federal support, or inherited land from their families.
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He describes himself as “an anti-policy person” that favors letting the free market run its course. But Ben thinks the only way to change that is by enacting federal policy, like offering farmers a tax break or other benefits for selling land to beginner farmers at affordable prices.
Ben also said the mind-set of current farmers has to change from holding onto their land as long as possible to taking a chance on new farmers who don’t have the familial ties that now are all but required for land ownership.
He doesn’t see that happening as long as older large-acre operators continue to pass their land to their children, and as long as agricultural interest groups press to maintain the status quo in Washington, D.C.
“It’s coming to the knowledge that we are just about at a cliff in agriculture, but we haven’t found it out yet,” he said. “They’ve pushed for years to get bigger, to specialize or get out, and it’s just a matter of time that you lose the economies of scale, become inefficient, the farmland suffers, everything suffers, backward from that. If we don’t get more people on the land, we’re going to be in trouble.”
But even in the face of all of these obstacles, Ben holds out hope he’ll have an acreage to call his own with his faith in God and what he feels he is called to do — and by sheer persistence.
So he continues to apply to the mentorship programs and continues to make calls on land ads, hoping that one day he’ll get the call that gets him a piece of a land to call his own.
Above all, he still hopes that the old farmers and their families decide to give eager beginners a shot.
“They’re not making farmers like they were 40, 50, 60 years ago anymore,” Ben said. “Coming back from World War II, you had millions of guys buying farms with the GI Bill. You’re probably doing good getting 100,000 people now that want to farm nationwide. I think there’s probably enough land to go around.”