changing lands changing hands

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

The average age of American farmers has been climbing for decades, and many say rural towns are at-risk without new blood. There are enough people who want to farm, but there’s trouble connecting beginning farmers and the communities that need them.

YouTube, "Back to the Start."

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which we talk about important issues related to food production.

The drought was easily the biggest story on the farm beat in 2012. But this past year, many of the stories filed by Harvest Public Media reporters focused on food politics and the divide between large industry groups and proponents of organic, sustainable and local foods.

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

While the farming community continues to age fewer young people are filling the ranks, prompting the question: Do young people even want to farm anymore?

The quick answer is yes, just not in the same numbers as they used to. And surveys indicate many of them don’t want to farm in conventional ways.

A civic lesson for rural towns

Aug 8, 2013
Creative Commons

It’s hard not to use the phrase “quintessential small town” when you describe Pittsfield, Ill. 

The western Illinois community of 4,500 people has a picturesque downtown square with an historic courthouse sitting in the center.  The small city is the county seat of Pike County and for many years has called itself the Pork Capital of the World in homage to an important sector of farming in this region.   Every year the town holds a two day festival known as “Pig Days,” which, true to its name, features pig tail and hog calling contests.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Driving out of the western Iowa town of Panora, the winding roads offer broad vistas of rolling hills. Many of the mailboxes along Redwood Road show the name Arganbright. Jim Arganbright grew up in this area, one of 10 children. He and his wife, Beverly, have eight kids.

Though Jim Arganbright farmed here his whole life, three years ago at the age of 80 he started renting his cropland to his son Tom, the only one of his 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.

Retirement? Not on the farm

Aug 7, 2013
Ray Meints for NET News

Working beyond retirement is a fairly common refrain these days. In 2012, 5 percent of the U.S. workforce was beyond retirement age. But farmers seem to work longer than most. In the last Agriculture Census 25 percent of all farm operators were over 65 years old.

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.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

It’s not just lifelong farmers who feel the pull of the land as they get older. For some Americans, retirement is an opportunity to begin the farming dream.

“I wanted to be able to be active and have a pastime that ensured physical activity,” said beginning farmer Tom Thomas, who at 65 still has the physical fitness to wrestle and brand steers at his son’s ranch in Oklahoma.

Thomas retired two years ago after teaching exercise physiology for 35 years and he knew what he wanted to do next.