Iowa Public Television

 

States Help Graying Farmers Find Successors

posted on August 1, 2008


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Mike Cullipher used to juggle his farm chores and a full-time job, working 275 acres on nights and weekends. Now he's trying to make a go of it as a full-time farmer, and he's wondering about his father's plans for the property.

But when he asks 73-year-old Louis Cullipher, who is still active on the Virginia Beach farm, how he will divide the business among his three children, "He just puts his hands up and says 'we'll talk another day,'" the younger Cullipher says.

"It's not a pleasant thing for anyone to talk about, when you sit down and face your own mortality," Mike Cullipher said.

How to manage the shift to the next generation of farmers and ranchers is a creeping concern for the American farmer, whose average age is in the mid-50s.

Many farmers, like Louis Cullipher, love what they do and don't want to give it up. Some can't afford to retire. Still others have sons or daughters who aren't sure if they are interested in committing to a career that is full of rewards but also uncertainty.

At least 20 states have turned to rural matchmaking — called Farm Link in Virginia — to bring together farmers and possible successors. Representatives from about half of those states, as well as Canada, and farming organizations met this week in Richmond for the International Farm Transition Network. The conference ended Wednesday.

They heard from Virginia cattlemen and growers about the challenges facing farmers, from resisting development of farmland that can demand $25,000 an acre to the complexity of farming to the dynamics of family relationships.

"It is real easy to keep land in ownership in a family, but it is not as easy keeping a business going," said John Baker of the Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State University. "It takes more planning to move an asset from one generation to the next."

A survey of more than 500 Virginia farmers found that their average age was nearly 60, and 70 percent of them had not found a successor, said William P. Dickinson Jr., deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry.

Even if a farmer has an interested heir, the transition can be complicated.

Rancher Ronnie Forester is among a dying breed along Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, where his beef cattle are competing with Washington, D.C., retirees who are driving up the price of land. His son, Dwight, 28, has a strong interest in succeeding his father, but an unexpected death in the family has left a core portion of the farm to another member of the family.

"Now there's a big question mark over that property," the elder Forester said.

Joe Guthrie is the sixth generation of his family to farm but last fall, he began teaching at Virginia Tech, becoming a part-time farmer for the first time in his life.

"I tell all my students, avoid at all costs doing business with your family," said Guthrie, who has 500 acres in Pulaski County. "Emotion — that's what complicates things."

Still, he plans to talk to his three children, ages 7, 9 and 13, about the seventh generation of Guthries in farming. The tradition has been to have a single son take up the business.

Often, Baker said, farmers wait too long to discuss succession.

"The responsibility for business succession planning lies with the older generation because they are the ones with assets," he said. "People have to start thinking about business succession at 40, not at 70."

Increasingly, Baker said, younger people with farming connections who had careers in other fields are expressing an interest in returning to farming.

"The Japanese coined a term: U-turn farmers," he said. "They are not new farmers, but they are new to farming."

And the grow local movement is inspiring a new generation of farmers.

"There's always been younger people who wanted to farm," Baker said.


Tags: agriculture farmers news retirement