Friday, July 3, 2015

Getting into the game

October 1997

Lately I've noticed increased concern at several levels in our industry about the apparent lack of young people choosing farming as a career. Efforts are underway to give younger farmers special credit arrangements, to identify farmers interested in retiring, and to help young families manage the crucial first years. 

It has always seemed to me that the perceived lack of young farmers was actually a surplus of older farmers. Look at it statistically: as farmers enjoy longer and healthier lives, the average operator age could rise, even with a normal inflow of new blood. Perhaps to recruit the best new farmers possible, we should consider ways to increase turnover in the ranks.

When careers end, other careers can begin. With an essentially fixed land base, there is room for only so many farmers, especially with farm size expansion. To free up land is to open opportunities. I realize much of the available ground goes to established farmers rather than new farmers, and for good reason, but often this helps mid-career farmers increase their base to bring in children. A reasonable treatment of capital gains, such as a way to roll the final sale proceeds into an IRA-like investment could remove a barrier. 

More importantly, however, it may be time to consider retirement as a commendable step in the professional life of a farmer. As long as we consider the idea of working until we drop in the harness as THE way to go, we will not fully realize the power of timely retirement to regenerate our industry. While I have known many farmers who swear they could never retire (“I’ve always got to have work to do!”), I have met very few who were sorry they actually retired. In fact, most were surprised by how much they enjoyed retirement. A greater awareness of increased life expectancy and more planning to not just cope, but take full advantage of these years, could do much to reshape traditional retirement views. I'm not suggesting a hard "65 and you're out" rule, but rethinking our attitude toward farming. Remaining in a business just because you haven't planned for anything else may not serve you, your family, or your industry best.

You can get here from about anywhere.  I have often grown slightly impatient with the career path fixation of FFA-Ag College-Farm with Dad-Rent Neighbor's Farm. Current operator resumes show clearly the widely varied backgrounds that can produce a successful career. These nontraditional entrants could bring a much wider range of skills and experiences to our communities if we gave value to other types of work and education. I obviously carry this conviction because I am an engineer. I have neighbors with similarly novel career paths. These unique skills also serve our community churches, school boards, and local organizations well.  

By encouraging alternative career paths, not only do we increase the number of possible entrants, we can also help stabilize young families' incomes with the addition of desirable job skills, thus enhancing off-farm employment possibilities during the rugged early years. Outside income plays an increasingly important role in starting young farm families. We need to fully recognize and honor that contribution. Too, we could stop being startled by the possibility of a daughter farming while her husband pursues an off-farm career.

Elderly rookies. I think one real sleeper trend could be second-career farmers. If your children show no immediate signs of returning, wait a while. I have noticed more than a few couples in their 30s and 40s coming back to farm after successful off-farm careers. Often they are looking for a better lifestyle. The unlikeness of a 40-year career in today's flexible labor market means that many young adults will have multiple “careers”. While not “young” farmers, such new blood can be just as invigorating to agriculture.

Polish our recruiting campaign. If you would listen to the average farmer conversation, I don't know why any young person would want to farm anyway. The same guy that moans and groans about how bad things are usually ends up complaining how his kids don't want to come back to farm with him. Heck, I don't want to farm with him either. If we have no enthusiasm for our profession or reasonable hopes for the future, we will probably pass this on. It is also unfortunate that many farm organizations can only seem to use predictions of disaster to move their membership to action.  After you've heard for years how bad things are, and how much worse they may get, it starts to shape your thinking. This is not an attractive recruiting picture.

Expand the idea of family. I'm in my (very) late forties and I am part of the group that is largely responsible for today's entering farmers. I know two things:  1.) We didn't manufacture as many offspring as previous generations and 2.) Our children are more familiar with life off the farm than I ever was at their age. That there is a high loss rate to non-farm careers can be expected just from increased familiarity with the possibilities. We may not have a successor in our immediate family to recruit. Why not consider your neighbor's son/daughter who might not have a chance otherwise, before seeking the highest bidder?

Entry into our profession has always varied with conditions on and off the farm. Some things, however, are under our control. They just may require some effort to embrace a new idea or two. Always remember that we ourselves are replacements for earlier farmers. We owe them a duty to choose successors as brilliantly and responsibly as they did.  

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