The 2007 Census of Agriculture revealed something just about everyone in rural America suspected: America’s farmers are getting older.
According to the Agriculture Department, the average U.S. farmer is 57 years old and the number of operators 75 and older grew by 20 percent in the most recent study.
The trend isn’t likely to reverse anytime soon. But ask an older grower when they plan to retire, and chances are they’ll say, ”someday – maybe -- but not right now…”
It’s easy to understand. These folks have worked hard for decades. But hard work is no guarantee of success in a risky business like farming. Most endured significant hardship at some point, and agriculture hasn’t always been this profitable.
But time marches on. By some estimates, more than half of America’s farmland will change hands over the next generation. And as Nebraska's NET News and Harvest Public Media’s Grant Gerlock explains, many farmers and ranchers are well beyond typical retirement age, but some are in no hurry to quit.
Bob Hawthorn, Castana, Iowa: “The farm was first purchased by my great-grandfather....He farmed it. His son farmed it after him. Then my dad, then me.... I’m kind of the last guy on the chain.”
Bob Hawthorn farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. He’s been doing it 60 years, and at the age of 84 he has no plans to slow down.
It runs in the family. His father, Fred Hawthorn, stayed active on the farm into his 90s and lived to be 98. So Bob feels like he’s still got plenty of time left to work.
Bob Hawthorn Castana, Iowa: “I’d be bored not having anything to do. I’ve also noticed that farmers, when they retire buy a house in town, move into town, they die of a heart attack about in the next year....It seems like farmers have to keep going active or they just fade away.”
Hawthorn is part of a growing group of farmers. In fact, farmers over 65 years old have been the fastest growing group of farmers in the country. Working beyond retirement is a national trend. In 2012, 5 percent of the U.S. workforce was old enough to retire. But a quarter of all farm operators were over 65. When it comes down to it, it’s just easier for farmers to work longer.
Mike Duffy, Iowa State University: “It’s not quite as backbreaking a task as it used to be. Well, it isn’t. It’s more you use your mind rather than your back, so you can go longer.”
And thanks to higher yields at today’s high grain prices, farming is more lucrative now than just about any time since Bob Hawthorn came back to the farm in 1955. But in surveys of Iowa farmers, Mike Duffy has learned regardless of the money or new technology, some farmers will just never quit.
Mike Duffy, Iowa State University: “Farmers are farmers. And that’s who they are. And that’s who they identify themselves as and so they don’t – that’s like retiring from who you are....They’ll leave horizontal and that’s just, you know, and that’s who farmers are.
Dr. Mike Rosmann, AgriWellness, Inc.: “I think what keeps older farmers going is the fear that if I don’t keep going there’s nothing left for me to make me feel like I’m contributing and am a valuable person....That keeps a lot of farmers continuing even perhaps when their bodies say, we should quit this.”
Psychologist Mike Rosmann calls it the “agrarian imperative.” It’s something he knows personally as a retired farmer himself. It’s the kind of determination to keep farming that causes Bob Hawthorn to push back when neighbors ask about retirement.
Bob Hawthorn, Castana, Iowa: “They keep bugging me. They say, when are you gonna quit? I think I’d tell ‘em I won’t quit farming till all hell freezes over. Something like that.”
But even as farmers take the long view on their careers, there may be some things they don’t see coming.
Dr. Mike Rosmann, AgriWellness, Inc.: “We know the incidences of injuries and occupation related illnesses is higher for agriculture than almost any other occupation... Aging farmers are losing their friends sometimes they’re losing health and they’re more prone to depression and even in some cases suicide from what we know from the data.”
Access to care is a problem in many rural areas. The Nebraska Rural Response Hotline has been helping farmers and their families find counseling since the farm crisis of the 1980s. But many don’t get the help they need. Studies have found the risk of suicide is 60 percent higher for farmers than the rest of the population. Studies also show a surprising number of farmers work late into their careers without a plan for how it will eventually end.
Dr. Mike Rosmann, AgriWellness, Inc.: “Over half of aging farmers don’t have a will or an estate plan and I think it reflects what you and I are discussing and that is, perhaps a denial of the fact that somebody’s got to take over and I need to have a plan for that.”
The plans older farmers make have larger implications because more often than not, they own the land they’re working. That means farmers like Bob Hawthorn hold a big piece to the future of farming. Mike Duffy describes the trend in Iowa.
Mike Duffy, Iowa State University: “In the early 80s about 10 percent, 12 percent of the land was owned by people over 75.”
Now nearly a third of Iowa farmland belongs to people over 75. But those landowners know their neighbors are watching and waiting.
Mike Duffy, Iowa State University: “Where you see tensions is in communities, people trying to bid for land and outbid each other and going to retirement homes and going to funerals and asking widows if, you know, offering to rent their land and you know, all kinds of nonsense like that....To some extent, it’s competition among businesses. But to some extent, it’s very cutthroat and it leaves bad feelings.”
Bob Hawthorn does wonder what will happen to his family’s farm. He knows one thing: after four generations the Hawthorn family farm ends here. He has no children of his own. He never married. What will happen? It’s a big question, and not one he seems ready to answer. Not just yet.
Bob Hawthorn, Castana, Iowa farmer: “When I look overhead, I see a lot of vultures circling and descending on me. They can’t wait until I retire, I die, or become physically or mentally incompetent to run the farm so they get their greedy hands on my farmland....Every farmer wants to grab more land because he’s not big enough. I never heard of any farm that wants to sell some land because he got too much.”
For Market to Market, I’m Grant Gerlock.