The Edmond Sun

Business

April 21, 2014

Amber waves turning gray as farms lose younger generation

OKLA. CITY — Jerry Pfeiffer was thrilled when his 25-year-old son Kelsey announced plans to return to the family’s farm in Orlando.

Rather than get an 8-to-5 “real job” that makes more money, Pfeiffer said his son opted to come home to help raise about 300 cows and 700 female goats. Pfeiffer Farms sells many of its animals to become junior livestock projects for youth.

“It’s a very difficult way to make a living, but we’re glad he’s here,” Pfeiffer said of his son.

His two daughters are a different story. Pfeiffer said he doesn’t expect them to return to the farm full-time once they finish college.

The Pfeiffer family farm represents what’s becoming the exception to a trend confounding farmers and state agriculture officials. As fewer members of the next generation show interest in joining their family businesses, older farmers find themselves stuck with limited choices.

That worries Jack Staats, state supervisor of agricultural education, who said he knows some who’ve taken farms and ranches out of production, planting grass instead, because “they can’t find anybody that wants to come in behind them and farm.”

Farm land lost to the cracks between generations or that falls to another threat — urban sprawl — eventually will affect the food supply, Staats said.

“That’s scary,” he said. “Where are those crops going to come from if you change crop lands to grass?”

The average age of an American farmer is now 58.3 years old, up 1.2 years from 2007 and continuing a steady increase over the past three decades, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released in February.

A report by the National Young Farmers Coalition three years ago found that for every farmer under age 35, six are older than age 65.

For agricultural professionals the yawning age gap is a scary trend, especially for Oklahoma, where the industry is the state’s third-largest, according to Staats. Oklahoma has the fourth most farms of any state in the country, according to the USDA.

“We’re constantly trying to get young people involved,” said Staats. “I guess it boils down to the fact of, who’s going to do it? If you don’t try to build on what’s coming behind you, there will be a point where there will be a crisis.”

The struggle to recruit young farmers is an old one, but the problem appears to be deepening. The USDA’s study found the number of beginning farmers — those operating less than 10 years — dropped 20 percent from 2007.

Staats said the usual sirens lure young people away — promises of stability and money in other jobs, or the attraction of living near a city. Expensive start-up costs also deter people from taking on farms.

Oklahoma officials are working against the trend. Staats noted the governor cites agriculture as one of the state’s industries that must be “nurtured.” The state’s Future Farmers of America organization recruits young people by talking about the industry and connecting aspiring farmers to those in the business.

The state also offers seven career programs for agriculture, though most are related to business.

“Most young people can’t walk into agriculture and do it without help,” he said, noting that the Pfeiffer model, of father and son working together, is typically successful.

Staats said there are some other explanations for farming’s age gap. One is the number of farmers who resist retirement.

“There’s a lot of people that want to stay and work. They’re still active,” he said.

Many other older farmers want out — but don’t know how to do it with little savings and nobody ready to take over the family business.

That was particularly clear on recent morning in Chickasha, when about two dozen farmers turned out for a low-cost Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service farm transition seminar. The workshop was designed to encourage older farmers to gradually transfer their enterprises to the younger generation, and come up with exit strategies for themselves. More than two-thirds of the attendees were older than age 50.

Shannon Ferrell, an Oklahoma State University associate professor, said fewer than one-third of farms survive the transfer from the founding generation.

That’s largely because of inadequate estate planning, insufficient capital and failure to prepare the next generation to properly to run a farm, Ferrell said.

“(Anybody) can tell a plow from a sow from a cow,” Ferrell said. “There’s a difference between being on a farm and being able to run a farm.”

Pfeiffer said he’ll understand if his son one day decides farming isn’t for him. Kelsey Pfeiffer, with a hard work ethic, gets a job offer for more money about every other week, his father said.

At the same time, Pfeiffer said he hopes to pass onto his son a belief in the industry and its rewards, as well as an understanding of how important future generations of farmers and ranchers are to America’s future.

“If we don’t get some young people back in agriculture, food is going to get really (expensive) because we don’t have people to produce it,” he said. “Sooner or later we’re going to have a shortage of protein meats and grains.”

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