No Farms for the Young: The average American farmer is over 58. With significant barriers to entry, the average is only getting older.
By Adam H. Williams, Senior Associate at E911-LBS, LBSglobe.com, for WOLF STREET:
I work as a contract software engineer for a living. I live frugally and save every penny to pay down my gigantic student debt that piled up while I was getting my degrees (Bachelor’s in Economics and Philosophy, Master’s in Software Engineering) and later working on a Ph.D. in Informatics. I’m making good progress on the student debt, but it’s important to have dreams. Putting my aspirations to be a billionaire playboy astronaut temporarily on the backburner, I have always wanted to have a farm.
Childhood memories on my great-grandmother’s farm are some of my most pleasant. It was far from luxurious, but other than warnings not to go near the pond – lest the giant catfish eat me – it was a happy time. Running in the pasture, learning about cows, climbing on the old tractors, and exploring the woods and the night sky – they all made me happy. Those summers in Oklahoma provided a wonderful counterpoint to suburban Dallas.
I also learned a lot – a bit about how everything comes from somewhere and someone must make it happen, like learning first-hand how chicken nuggets come from chicken (slightly shocking!). So for me, I’ve always dreamt of having a farm.
What’s the Appeal – Who wants to be a Farmer anyway?
Besides the fun-times above, a farm for me mostly means security. I graduated from university in the midst of the Financial Crisis. My parents lost their jobs and their home. I was effectively homeless for a bit till we figured things out. I struggled, like almost all other young adults, to find any kind of work. Farming for me represents safety and independence against this backdrop of chaos.
There are other benefits. One is “Country culture,” which generally is far friendlier than not (though I’ll admit I’ve had a few “you’re not from around here” moments). Another is the emotional permanence of a farm: “Don’t sell the Farm” they say – if you have that, you always have something to fall back on. To me a farm represents an independence that almost nothing else can match, particularly when viewed from the collective social-media-driven insanity into which our world seems to have descended.
But there’s a problem: Try as I might, there’s absolutely no way I can afford to become a farmer, let alone get a farm.
Demographics by the Data
Much of the recent news about farming has focused on crop losses, bankruptcies, land prices, trade wars and climate-related losses. Agriculture makes up only about 1% of the U.S. workforce by profession. But for me, one data point stands out: Age.
According to the USDA NASS 2017 Census of Agriculture – the average American farmer is 58 years old. And that average has been rising. In fact, farming is the oldest profession in America.
That average age is rising in no small part because not a lot of new blood is coming into the fold. Only about 10% of American farmers are under 35. For every 4 farmers over 40, there is only 1 farmer under 40. This is exacerbated by rural flight and declining birthrates.
While the data is there for all to see, it’s yet to find its way into being a national priority – and that’s a problem.
The majority of farms in the US are small farms, though large farms are responsible for significant production. According to the USDA NASS report, of the 2.1 million farms in the United States in 2012:
- 97% were family owned operations,
- 88% were small family farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income,
- 9% were mid-size and large family farms.
In addition, the USDA report found small farms account for:
- 48% of all farmland operated
- 47% of the value of farm real estate (land and buildings), 20% of agriculture sales, and earned 5% of the country’s net farm income.
In short, the typical American farmer is now nearing or past retirement age, has a small operation, and probably is not doing all that well financially.
What are some of the hurdles to becoming a farmer?
Insane Land Prices. They have skyrocketed 400-900% since the last farm crisis (1980’s), which started before I was born and risen further since the Financial Crisis when absentee landlords, coastal and international investors, and hedge funds began buying up acreage under the assumption that land prices can only go up! Which prices did until 2017 when they saw a slight drop as farm income and disconnected cost mismatch began to rebalance.
Prime farmland in the Midwest can still easily cost $8,000+ an acre. That’s a hell of a mortgage payment for a 100-acre farm! What land is available is of questionable quality. To purchase a small operational farm can easily cost a million dollars.
Overwhelming Student Debt. The average American college graduate has over $37,000 in student debt, which is about $500 a month in payments. For people with graduate degrees (like me) this debt is a lot more. Already struggling with loans, starting a small farm from scratch and waiting till harvest to get any return can seem impractical, if not insurmountable.
Farm Loans. Some time ago, I contacted several agricultural banks about starting up a farm. Some blew me off. But a few lenders told me that no one does start-up loans for farming. They’re all operating loans for established enterprises, usually with collateral. One nice man advised me the only real way to do it was to do a regular mortgage on a farmhouse with land. Meanwhile average farm debt is over $1.3 million and bankruptcies are on the rise.
High Startup Costs. Land prices aside, you still have to eat, have shelter and the lights on. Conventional farming requires expensive equipment, and there are huge costs in fuel, feed, petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers. Even if you go organic, there are still expenses and often much more labor cost. If you’re starting from a tiny house and a plot of land, you’ve got a Sisyphean financial hill to climb.
It’s not profitable! The University of Minnesota Extension found that farm income went net negative in 2014. Relatively improved economic conditions since then did not help farming that much: 2018 was barely breaking even, with the average Iowa farm making only $9 an acre! Meanwhile, commodity prices continue to fall. Using contemporary production methods, most farms are now in the red.
Rural America lacks good jobs. A harsh implication is that over 50% of small farmers have an additional occupation to make ends meet. However, good paying rural jobs can be hard to find, and when moving to a small town – you’ll find still find work to be done, at shockingly low wages.
All this makes for a steep hill to climb, and despite this it has not crushed my dream. But wow! No one said farming was easy, but as a society, we’re doing little to help enable the next generation of farmers. American farmers feed the world, and we may be able to spur innovation using technology or regenerative design systems like permaculture. But we won’t be able to do that without young people being able to get into farming. By Adam H. Williams, for WOLF STREET
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No doubt, the problem is mostly in the land prices being excessive. Like all other asset classes, farmland has been inflated by LIRP (low interest rate policy).
At some point, there is going to have to be a reset — the world can’t go on, with asset prices constantly appreciating, with no limit set by interest rates.
When they do reset, then people who bought assets at that price will feel hurt, and that will be relative; their wealth will decrease relative to people who are just buying. People who have debt based on the current regime will be destroyed. People who saved cash or non-depreciating assets will become relatively wealthier.
The big question is whether this change will happen with minimal or maximal disruption. Even minimal will be tremendously painful; maximal would be something we haven’t seen for several generations. The GFC came close, but the response to it caused pain to people in favour of protecting the system. As long as the current system, and wealth hierarchy, is protected, the reset hasn’t happened.
It seems likely to me that asset prices will crash in the not too distant future and this will bring about some sort of reset. The stock market can’t play dumb for much longer. Fiscal deficits are now over $1T a year and headed towards $2T. Many pension funds are ready to go bust. The goods economy is already near recession. Gold price is shooting up. Stock price performance is not well distributed. Protectionism and currency wars are in full swing.
Clearly, there has been an elevated level of uncertainty this year. The lions have already tackled members of the herd and are eating them alive. It’s only a matter of time before the entire herd starts running.
According to socaljim, it’s to the moon Alice for infinity.
We were suppose to have a reset after the financial crash of 07-08, but the politicians under Bush and Paulson allowed the Fed to mandate a monetary policy solution. In other words, they just changed the value of the money and shifted the costs onto savers and the middle class in order to save the banks and financial institutions on Wall Street and to preserve the political status quo. This is no longer a market system we have. Common sense no longer applies. Any reset will have to be catastrophic and beyond the political system’s ability to effect.
No mention of the other players? No Obama, or more importantly Tim Geitner.
You do know Geitner and Paulson were practically joined at the hip during the rigmarole? When Paulson was having panic attacks and throwing up at zero dark thirty, Geitner was all but holding his hair (Paulson didn’t need that given his lack of hair, but the point remains).
I can think of a lot of places where the land has not really gone up. I purchased a farm that I just sold in 1990, so I held for 30 years and ‘worked’ the farm, bought for $100k ( raw land ), sold for close to a Million cash, but and I mean “BUT”, I sunk probably +2Million into the farm over that 30 years, in all kinds of things like roads, and back-hoes, bull-dozers, tractors, out buildings, permits, spraying ( aerial ), …
So as an investment it was a loser, the land isn’t why I was about to sell at a profit on paper, that was because of the trees on the land. +100 acres if anybody is curious about ‘scale’.
The deal is I bought the land at 30, but now I’m 65, and about two years ago my CPA suggested I was too old to continue to take care of this property, and he’s right, massive amount of work, and very dangerous equipment and chemicals ( spraying roads, … ), weeds, poison-oak, …
Now I also own a cattle ranch in Arizona, and that land is worth 10% of what I paid 20+ years ago, so AZ was a BIG loser, but PNW I made a little profit.
Now I ‘rice farm’ in Vietnam, where I can be a gentleman farmer.
I’m not really sure why anybody would want to ‘farm’, I think in USA it really has only one purpose to “Defer Taxation”, in my 30 years of ‘farming’ I spent millions, and then was able to cash out in my sixty’s, had I just spent the money, or ‘invested’ I would have nothing now.
In Asia I can buy land dirt-cheap, and farming is just a hobby, but its what everybody else does, so its a great way to fit in.
I know when I was 30 I was rich, meaning I had an enormous cash-flow as a serial entrepreneur. I think for most people, that’s not the case, and now IMHO its nearly impossible, unless you think that hitting the Youtube-Lottery is likely.
My dream was never to be a farm, to be honest the remote propertys was all for a place to ‘shoot’ ( real guns ), but the fact is I always had to work, and had no time to shoot, so much for the dream. There was no time when I went to the farm, it was cleaning the house (cabin) killing mice, and spraying weeds, and running heavy-equipment on roads. Then eating&sleeping, just like real farmers live. No time for ‘hobby’.
In summary if you can do anything, I would say when young buy a sailboat and sail around the world, I did that, but wouldn’t want to do it now. Now I’m content to ride my bicycle in se-asia and watch the rice grow. Sleep in a bamboo shack above ground, grow what you eat, brew beer, and pump your own water. Probably the BIGGEST pain in arse in USA for me is shopping, if you wanted food you either had to stock from ‘big city’, as the local rural stores in USA are just walmart ( fake food ), … here in ASIA I go go in any direction a mile and find a ‘farmer market’ where old people sell stuff 24/7, the excess of what they grow. This is the way to live, the USA used to be a place to make money, but not to live, now the USA isn’t even a place to make money.
Great post. I’ve been around a lot of SE Asia and I agree with all of what u say.
Socially, simply being on a motorbike and not isolated in a car is a huge psychologicAl plus for me.
Good article I’m 66 have a small farm chickens bees vegetables fruit trees Don’t do it for a living Do it because I enjoy it Have 3 tractors several trucks and really enjoy myself But I don’t make any money from it Have outside income But I would definitely follow your dream You won’t regret it I’ve always been amazed at where all the food comes from at the grocery store
Agree that farmland is over-priced. However, I have no sympathy for someone who takes on school debt. This was a personal decision… and, frankly a PHD is absolutely unnecessary to be a contract programmer. In fact, many companies don’t even require a bachelor’s degree anymore.
You made your economic decisions… now live with them.
He is living with his decisions, notice how he’s paying down that debt rapidly because he can make pretty good money with his degrees and because he is living frugally? And notice how he has a dream that he is chasing after.
Not sure what you’re preaching about from your high horse, but it may be time to get off that high horse before it throws you off :-]
I never had any debts in my life, but I would look for ways of not paying it back or paying as little of it back as possible. This is especially so because student debts are becoming too big of a problem for politicians not to come up with a radical plan of debt forgiveness and you don’t want to be the fool who pays it all back. We saw after the GFC that the prudent savers get punished in our system and the drunken sailors are rewarded. So get a zero down mortgage, bury your savings in the back yard where no one can find it, get the maximum number of credit cards and charge to the limit, quit your job, then file for bankruptcy, and rebuild your credit. This might be a bit of an oversimplification, but how else are you going to punish the rich who keep taking advantage of the poor? The wealth inequality is ultimately just a matter of psychology and each of us can do our part to fix it.
At least the author is handling his affairs, but your comment seems to ignore the disgraceful fraud that is being perpetrated by supposedly non-profit colleges and universities, aided by banks who paid off politicians to get student loan debts to be non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. Immature students being told they can follow their dreams with loans they can’t ever pay off is no different from unsophisticated and uneducated potential home buyers being told they can afford a home that was absurdly beyond their means. Dumping on people with a desire to learn is sure way to destroy your country’s future. Without pure and applied research, a first-world nation goes back to the dark ages.
Student lending has been abandoned by all the major banks. Student lending is now a federal govt enterprise and has been for about a decade.
Big banks administered the loans when they lobbied for the non dischargability provision under Clinton and bush 2. Obama admin took student loans from the banks in a subsequent reform, with a key argument being that those loans are not dischargagle anyway and gov can provide a lower rate.
big corp ag is keeping prices high
big MONOPOLIES like monsanto keep raising prices for seed corn(no other suppliers allowed)
throw in obscene equipment costs, high priced diesel
remember it takes 1.65 gallons of diesel to make 1 gallon of ethanol(talk about lack of common sense)
not to worry – big daddy is out there taking care of his 1%
Aside from the thermodynamic insanity of (net energy-losing) ethanol production in the US, this non-religious person has no hesitation in calling it a sin.
Brazil seems to have a reasonably sane basis for its ethanol industry, using sugar cane waste as the primary input, but to use food to produce fuel (with a net energy loss) is madness and venality on a gross scale. And yet, with the Iowa caucuses having so much influence on presidential elections, who is ever going to call it out?
Who will call it out, you ask ??
Why, those gents who mount their steeds in earnest – the 4 horsemen !! As was with times past .. human stupidity and greed, with a little help from Gaia .. will pave the way for future farmers, as that will be the main ‘occupation’ for most, assuming there’s any viable land left for them to farm. As for soil amendments and fertilizer .. I hear tell that the formerly affluent and powerful make for a nutritious soil !
Michael and Joe – I agree – current US Farm policy is deeply out of touch with reality. Corn’s net energy loss is a sin – though I am hopeful that one day Hemp or other energy-positive crops like sugar cane will replace the system. I’m not really sure how this came to be – it seems primarily rooted in seed and agrichemical marketing and lobbying – but one way or another there will be a change – I’ve spoken to many young adults in Iowa, and they have no interest in farming corn – there’s no money in it, they can’t afford to get into it, and they are aware that the energy economics make no sense. With the rise of the internet, rural farmers have a lot more access to information than they ever did, so there are definitely people waking up. Now that hemp is ostensibly legal to grow, it’ll take a while for progress, but in any future energy crisis, there are definitely people waiting in the wings wanting to be the change – they’re just currently priced out of the land.
Hang tough Andy, your chance will come at some point. Whether you recognize or are ready for it are another matter. I started farming in the late 70’s, and it wasn’t long until the early 80’s raised holy hell with the farm economy including land and machinery costs. FLB put a floor under land prices at that time about $800 per acre. Many thought it would go lower but it didnt. Auctions were plenty and I witnessed young people I knew, buying machinery literally dirt cheap. They were able to get basic smaller equipment, sufficient to farm 240 to say 400 acres for half your student debt. There was plenty of land to lease or buy, as not many wanted to think of expansion in that uncertainty. I truly believe that those sort of days will be here again, and likely not far off. Too many factors such as the avg age of the farmers and the avg profit per acre, make it unavoidable. Save money where possible and keep your eyes and ears open. Good luck on all you do.
I dont believe that is correct. I think is more like 10 gal of ethanol from 1 gallkn of fiesrl.
Rentier culture. When does the rioting start you Youngers?
looking at “farming” as a way to make a living, starting at a young age from scratch, really is pretty hopeless, as you point out.
But it’s quite possible to have the country “way of life” without farming for fiat dollar income. What one produces, one consumes; Beyond that, one doesn’t produce. A small livestock holding is less time-consuming than row crop production or gardening; so is firewood, which produces itself.
One way is to work for a living online, from your “farm”.
If you were determined to do it, in spite of the drawbacks, could you devise a procedure to do contract software engineering online?
I crunched the numbers years ago and came up with a hybrid farm model that suits our family. To really throw cold water on the idea of farming, except for vegetable kitchen gardens and home eggs, even growing your own food ends up more expensive than buying commercial ag products on sale at a grocery store. And if your time is worth anything at all, it just doesn’t pay in the slightest. It never did. Toss in some predation and fencing, even family production is a dead loss.
I purchased a small christmas tree acreage on Vancouver Island many years ago with an additional 5 acres in fields and another 12 acres in more mature 2nd growth. It was next door to where I live and zoned RESIDENTIAL, (which made it a smart purchase as opposed to a farm land purchase). I picked it up for the price of the rural tax assesment, so it was also dead cheap, in hindsight. Long time Locals thought I was stupid at the time, (but don’t anymore as there is no residential land left in the Valley, everything else zoned ag or forestry, only). I bought some katahdin sheep to keep the grass down between the Christmas trees. I quickly discovered the only way the trees paid off was by selling them for cash and staying away from the accountant. Then the cougars started on my sheep. Elk herds munched the best new grand fir (a balsam) and would dig up the gardens. Bears ate the apples. Stellar jays will eat every hazlenut that grows and robins eat every berry. Solution: Sheep gone after shooting two cougars (I finally just gave up on sheep and lamb chops), christmas trees thinned and are growing into a woodlot, bigger forest is living firewood and saw logs if needed. We sit by the pond after dinner and watch the dragon flies and trout rising. We have two freezers full of home grown vegetables, 112 hills of Russian fingerling potatos behind 10′ elk fencing, and more fruit than we can ever eat. The cougars still take every deer on the property and elk are by draw/lottery unless you want to take a chance poaching (which I don’t). We used to raise meat birds but that is barely break even if your labour is free. I gave my home made chicken plucker away last week to a friend. I now just have 6 layers and sell the excess eggs to neighbours which just pays for the feed. Garden, fruit, eggs, and also salmon caught from my dock fill two freezers. Firewood means free wood heat and I have 6 years already cut, split, stacked, and in sheds. (better than going to a gym). Modern woodstove technology is unbelieveable, and all stoves have glass doors for effect. Very efficient heat. We have no heating bill. BC Hydro electricity is less than $2 per day which is for lighting, cooking, and hot water, (and electric heat backup).
I used to earn 85-90K per year plus bennies working 185 days per year. (retired 7 years ago). If I worked 365 days per year farming, I might earn 10K. I built a rental in the woods for a friend of mine and charge him just enough to cover taxes and insurance on our land and home ($350/month). Next year it goes to $400, starting in June.
This is not a new story by any means. My Dad’s family is from Minnesota. My great uncle had a huge farm and a wife who was the rural mail lady. They grew feed corn, had milkers, horses, and some pigs. My cousins miked two dairy herds and both worked full time as teachers. I currently have a neighbour who raises cattle and drives the school bus and is a school custodian during the day. His farming co-owner brother drives logging truck and his wife is a nurse in town. They all work full time to pay for the joy of farming on the side.
Our vacant land (being residential) has appreciated a minimum of 150% in 10 years. If we subdivided it we could make more. We won’t. So why do we bother doing any of this? Awnser: security and personal freedom, pure and simple. My parents were products of the Great Depression and I will never forget the recession of the early ’80s when I lost my job, had to work away in 3 month stretches, and my mortgage went from 7.5% to 18%. That turned me into a saver. Whatever happens we will always have a home to live in, enough food to eat, good water, good neighbours, and if it all goes for shit my relatives can move here and we’ll build them a house too. My 2 kids and one nephew can figure it out when we’re gone. My son is already my neighbour so most likely he will buy them out. And, it’s also rewarding. You haven’t lived until you’ve run out of the house at 2:00am, naked as a jaybird to tree and shoot a racoon trying to get into the henhouse. It’s all fun and lots of laughs. Last year we had a black bear snoozing on the front porch after doing a nighttime apple raid. I had to chase him away, twice…and yes all done naked. :-)
Adam, I recommend you pay close attention to Paulo’s remarks. Farming has to go through a cataclysm of environmental or economic change before it can be profitable.
It can, however, be the setting for a great personal life. Look at the foresight and cleverness that Paulo and RD Blakeslee have exhibited in structuring / strategizing their lives, including:
* self-sufficient. If it goes to smash, they’ve got food, water, energy, shelter
* no debt, no big machines, therefore no cash-flow vulnerabilities which (as you know) is what usually takes out farmers
* got work-load and labor-resource in balance. This is monster-hard in farming; the spike loads on labor come right out of your back. It will grind you up
* multi-skilled. They can build stuff, and most of what they can do they weren’t “trained for”. Self-learners big-time.
What you’ve done in your piece is to set out farming as it is conventionally done, and that model is approaching end-of-life-cycle. It’s time to ask “what’s the next model look like?”
Lastly, there are some folks that are making money doing intensive organic production on small acreage (< 10 acres). Need a big metro market full of rich people to do this, so finding cheap good land is to making those economics work. The labor-resource and cash-flow monsters still lurk in them waters.
Also, take a moment to read through Paulo’s and RD Blakeslee’s comments here on WS and (esp. RD’s) remarks elsewhere on the web. Lot of hard-won, very well-grounded insight from excellent thinkers and more imporantly, excellent do-ers. The doing is way, way harder than the thinking.
The next cycle of farming is autonomous. Ag has been ironing out self steering equipment for the last 10 years, it won’t be a cheap shift.
Great post. I am glad I am not the only to have to run outside naked with a firearm in the wee hours.? while I have a lot of work on my five acre fixer upper, being able to do it as a hobby is a real joy.
As long as you can get low latency broadband internet to the farm.
A lot of grant $$$ spent & continuing to be spent on rural
broadband. And what a difference it has made in the areas that pursued the grant money.
Well in ASIA laws have been passed laws to mandate fiber-optic to even the most remote location installation for free, e.g. no cost to run dozens of km of fiber along any power line, what does it mean? It means no matter how isolated you be, if you got a power line, you can get 50MB internet for about $20/month, which incidently besides electricity is the ONLY monthly bill people pay, as everything else is free ( grow your own food, pump your own water ), composte your own waste.
It means that an 8yr old boy can learn to be a scientist by watching youtube, living 6 hrs from the nearest ‘big-city’. It means you can download (torrent) any new movie and watch it as released anybody no matter how poor.
It means that any child can learn how to make a battery or super-capacitor from bamboo/coconut charcoal, and power his home with solar/bio-mass energy.
It means that nobody has to actually go live in the city and live a life of pollution and misery.
It means that every boy can find a beautiful mate and make beautiful children and never have to leave, to go the big-city like Africa, just means to return with Aids and drug addiction.
Means a lot. :)
In Oregon, the state utility commission threw us under the bus. Ruled that “Broadband” through satellite providers was adequate to meet the requirements of very rural areas.
Average 350K/sec download for $60 per mo. Want the gold-plated plan? …speeds will vary.
RD Blakeslee – Thanks for the sympathy :) I spoke to a number of older farmers in preparing this and for my Ph.D.research, and they felt similarly.
A country homestead lifestyle would be just as nice – and still provide that sense of independence. As pointed out in the article – 50% of farmers have another job – so most “farmers” are doing this. A permaculture set up on 20-40 acres would easily suffice. Problem is still need to acquire the property. I constantly look for properties outside of the Twin Cities in MN and WI, but I have yet to find something affordable.
Your basic 20-acre farmhouse is easily 250k-300K +, which would require 60k downpayment and run you $1600 a month (much higher than my current rent) just to pay the mortgage. Most of those properties also have serious maintenance required and are not turn-key. You can find cheaper stuff in the 100-200k range, but they are usually beat up mobile homes and dilapidated barn. I’d still need to contend with paying down my student loans. If I had a spare 60k lying around, I’d massively pay down my school loans, but still would need to build up that capital downpayment. Unless land prices come down – it’s going to be years.
Contracting is a difficult way to live, as projects are short term and easily changed by market forces. I’d happily take a remote full-time position, but those are rare. I also look for additional work, but it’s a tough way to live. I do think that if SpaceX’s Starlink and other new satellite internet ends up working well – this will reopen rural America to a lot of potential urban refugees, but it will be several more years before the first of these new networks come online.
The parallels between you and I are many (I’m also in tech). I didn’t go to college, as it mainly seemed like a money-grab to me, instead, I decided to go right to work after high school. The wife and I against all common sense, left the great lakes area and moved down south, so that we could afford 15 acres on our middle-income jobs, smack dab in the middle of the recession. Still haven’t been able to sell or payoff our house, but oh well…for now it’s a rental (no, we don’t come close to having rent pay the mortgage every month). However, we do raise 90% of our meat, 100% of our eggs, 100% of our milk and dairy, 60% of our vegetables (except for this year), and 100% of our heat…soon I’ll be 100% solar. We fuck in my front yard whenever we feel like. :-D This is not a freedom you pay for, this is a freedom you work for, every day, every morning, every night. We don’t sell anything, as we don’t believe food (or our soils) should be treated as a commodity. We don’t ever plan on selling our land or our house, as we don’t believe your shelter should be an investment. There’s many other under-40s techies that we personally know that are moving out here and doing the same exact as us (with the exception of their ignorance and delusion of making a killing on farming). The prices for land around here are $10K/acre. I’ve spent half of our time living here working from home, but currently my commute is looong (1 to 1.5 hour each way), while my wife works from home. Yes, actually closer to 100% of the farmers we know (and we know many) have off-farm jobs. Farms are largely a way of life or a hobby. Don’t give up. This is a definite possibility, if you have the discipline and slight insanity to get up early to feed and water your animals, milk your sheep, goats, cow, whatever, before heading off to work all day, only to come back, and check the fences, fix whatever needs fixing, before reading to the kids at night, and doing it all again the next day. I think you’ve based your article on a false premise, and its the same one that we see many other city-type-folk come with when they move out here. A farm is not something you should strive to buy, its something you should strive to build, even if it takes 15-20 years. No, you’re not likely to see a dime (the average farmer lost $4700 last year), but you’re likely to find so much value in your life and land, that its tough to put a price on.
You say “A permaculture set up on 20-40 acres .. ” I say a large suburban yard of about 1 acre would give you far more fruits and veg than you can handle even if you sell the excess at a Farmer’s market. One half acre has room to leave half as grass for family, 7-10 fruit trees, 100′ of various berry vines tied up in rows, and 100′ x 20′ plot for vegetables. Bring in meat, bulk grain products, electricity and firewood and you’re all set. With an acre instead of 1/2 you have room for potatoes and corn, maybe chickens if you have someone to take care of them daily. Give a 1/2 acre kitchen garden a 2-3 year try and I’d bet you’ll reconsider anything larger.
I thought one common pathway into the profession was to work as a farm hand for years, saving to buy your own parcel and at the same time getting experience so that you actually start your own farm knowing what you are doing.
Have you tried that option?
Zantesu – I think you may have watched too many Western movies – this is not a viable path to farm ownership in todays markets.
I’ve spent several summers working part-time on farms and community-focused agriculture. I will do more as I work on the Ph.D. The average farmhand wage in the US right now is about $10 an hour, or $20,000 per year. You’re basically at poverty line. Even if one were to save 15% of that meager wage, you’d only have 3k in the bank per year. If land prices were to stay flat – it’d take at least 13 years to save up the downpayment on a 200k property. At that point – I’ll be approaching 50, which reinforces my point – in the current world – there’s no room for young farmers.
Higher paying farm jobs require a college or graduate education (like farm manager, farm scientist, etc) and then you have the student loan problem. Being a farmhand these days, or renting farmland, is close to a sharecropper or a serf.
Nobody does that. After a few generations, the original farm would be too small. Many follow the old European primogeniture system, where the oldest son inherits 100% of the farm. The asset must be kept intact to maintain its function and value.
“… a farm for me mostly means security.”
Depends on the times. Historically, when food shortages begin in earnest the governments send their forces to expropriate the food from the peasants. And if authorities are not organized enough, urban people take it upon themselves. (for example, some urbanites during the worst of Weimar who’d form mobile bicycle gangs to loot the countryside).
Imagine, if German people can be driven to something like this, what would happen in areas populated by less orderly citizens.
There are many such examples from various periods and countries.
Yes, like the first 40 years of USSR’s existence.
One doesn’t have to go even that far… have you seen the recent pic report of a bunch of desperate urban Venezuelans killing a grazing cow in the field, with rocks?
“A Reader (and others)”
I don’t know if that would really carry force in the US. Are there not many armed Americans, especially in the rural areas that would probably put a crimp on the ability of the gov. or just random gangs to rape the countrysides in times of domestic peril, “at will”? Just saying.
Many examples indeed! But do please finish this story. What then did the “more orderly citizens” of Germany choose to do about this problem with their “less orderly citizens”? (actually just the equally desperate who had more of an “entrepreneurial” spirit, shall we say?)
So far the USA has done a fine job of locking them up, or getting them addicted to drugs, or just homeless, and therefore all quite harmless to the “orderly citizens”.
And the strangest thing is, that here, totally unlike the Weimar Republic, we are currently the wealthiest nation on earth.
I find this quite odd….how would one explain this mystery?
The financials may be unique, but every working stiff in America is dealing with the same fundamentals.
Big investments (training, time, housing in proximity to the jobs, transportation) in doing the work, and which continue to go up. Very low returns on the “investment”. Not to mention poor job security.
Aerospace is typical of how business is done in the USA circa 2019. Pilots with ATPs and management get rich. Everyone else is working harder for a lot less money.
The “starting rate” for experienced aircraft mechanics in the civilian world is apparantly about $30-35/hour, and less out in the areas with “low costs of living”. Yet you continue to hear the whining about “we can’t find help, especially experienced help”.
My personal plan was to work as long as I was physically able. But if conditions continue to stay the same, or get worse, I’ll probably just retire early.
I grew up on a farm in the 1970’s. When I was twelve I had my own project and purchased 2 Sows, and raised the 18 piglets that they farrowed up to market weight and sold them at the auction. I got more per pound that year than the current market price for pork on the hoof ( not inflation adjusted dollers, actual price.) Starting with the late Nixon administration farm policy in the U.S. was designed to hold down food prices so more consumer income would be available to fatten the pocketbooks of the landlords, bankers, higher education and the sickcare racket. This will change soon as water shortages, herbicide resistant weeds, lack of low cost inputs for fertilizer and a worldwide phosphate shortage will push us back to smaller scale local agriculture. Food prices will have to go up drastically and the all the rentier’s (toll booth economy folks) will have to be shrunken back to the share they had in the 1960’s.
Likewise. I grew up in an area of Georgia where at the time every farmer regardless of the size of their farm, had a small hog operation – 30-40 head average I would say.
When the price for hogs was driven down to where it wasn’t profitable anymore, those farmers just opened the gates. Now the feral hog problem is nearly out of control.
I sincerely hope your predictions come true.
That is crazy!
Well, how about starting small?
10 acres growing high priced/high demand vegetables as opposed to wheat or corn on a 100+ acres.
I have friends who raise chickens commercially.
Again, maybe 10 acres and they are quite profitable.
Links to “Farm to Table” restuarants?
I am sure if you talk with those late 50s farmers, none of them came from nothing and just suddenly purchased a 200 acre farm with equipment and buildings.
2banana – that’s good thinking – I have investigated and most of the few new farmers that exist are succeeding with that smaller high-value production model. Problem is, you still need that 10-acre farmhouse. Chickens seem to be one of the few profitable livestock, benefiting from the massive cull of a few years back.
Most of the people I have seen though, tend to be in their 40s (44 I believe is the average age for new American farmers) and the story seems to be – go to college, work 15 years to get out of debt – move to the country and start a small farm. Student debt stops small businesses from forming and risk-taking.
I did speak to many older farmers in preparing this – most of them bought land 30 years ago when it was $1,000 an acre. It’s now $8,000+ an acre. Equipment and construction were much cheaper. They mostly have sympathy and concern. Many also inherited thier land and lament no young farmers. It’s a challenge.
$1,000 in 1965 is worth about $8,000 today.
And remember that interest rates got to 20% in the 1980s.
Please see this USDA chart of farmland prices – in 1965 an acre of farmland was about $200, or $1000 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2018, US average was about $3500 an acre (which includes lots of low production ranch land) That’s about 400% increase in land prices beyond inflation. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/land-use-land-value-tenure/farmland-value/
I spoke of 30 years ago, nomial price was around $600 an acre, inflation-adjusted about $1200 an acre. As other lifelong farmers here have pointed out – profit margins have collapsed since then, and today’s low-interest rates have done nothing but allow outside buyers to purchase up land and charge very high rents.
“Problem is, you still need that 10-acre farmhouse.”
Not really. My plan was to work in a city in a rural area and rent 5 acres, with no buildings, out of town and get a cow, breed it and raise the calves to take to market. Grow from there. Yes, it’d start as an expensive hobby but if I could make it work, I’d be able to expand from there.
Sadly though, the family farm has been dead for a long time. Decades really. You see, my grandfather had a family farm in Iowa and did pretty well when he finally sold the farm to my uncle. My uncle was always up to his eyeballs in debt. So much so that my aunt had to take a bookkeeping job in town just to stay afloat.
I was the only male of the next generation with any desire to farm and I wanted it bad. My uncle and grandfather convinced me that I shouldn’t do that, that the numbers just didn’t work out anymore. Back in the 80’s.
These days, here in East Texas, I know some folks with family farms but you don’t have a prayer if you didn’t inherit it.
Have you looked into shrimp farming?
Great article Adam! Very interesting & wonderful reading!! The China trade wars must be creating havioc this season on the US wheat farmers. I would be curious how the average age 58+ farmers are presently coping.
Land prices went up when fears of the global financial apocalypse were in the news. Investors were putting money in offshore accounts, rich preppers bought luxury bunkers in NZ and SD. When money disappears central bankers print more, rinse and repeat.
The future of farming is probably in enclosed high intensity plots, or green houses using modified hydroponic systems. You can shorten the growth cycle to maturity and control the weather. Dry farming is obsolete. Also farmers have trouble finding labor, and must invest in crop picking machinery.
Been studying the issue myself, have a little over an acre in the city. Water is of course the prime expense here so you have to maximize use. Currently prices on imported produce are a deterrent to truck farmers, most of which grow flowers. Find the money crop, if you like the old subsistence model you can probably work in a fish farm, with aquaponics systems, a few flowers, a few herbs will pay the bills while you plant your main crop.
Yes, this is why I’ve put money into a commodity fund in my 401k. If you look at any 20 year period in the past, you would be extremely hard pressed to find a frame where commodities were not up. They may stagnate for 10-15 but then general inflation and the relentless increase of the money supply always take them up. However, not in the current last 20 years. They are extraordinarily down. Technology could be increasing the efficiency of producing various commodities, but really, could it be so extreme? I didn’t think so, especially with interest rates being so low, and the proof is here, farmers are apparently as insanely overleveraged as ever. Farmers have competed with themselves to the point where their net income is negative, obviously subsidised by ever greater amounts of debt which agricultural creditors have extended gleefully. I don’t care what optimistic people say, this insanity that has infiltrated industries everywhere has to end at some point unless creditors declare themselves philanthropists and admit they won’t get paid back. In the meantime, the basic hard building blocks of the economy (commodities) are cheaper than ever, wages are up slightly, and yet so is inflation but not because of raw basic input costs. So if increased costs (price inflation in other goods and services) are not because of commodities or wages, where is the money going? I think the answer is obviously the rich. Funny that they are then forced to loan it back to us to keep their stupid economy going. Do they really think this will end well for them?
rhodium, I agree with most of your observations but I have some reservations about the wisdom of investing in commodities funds.
Most such funds seem to buy options, futures and swaps, and not real commodities or their producers. The premium paid on these derivatives, which seem to be high, usually end up making the sellers wealthy and not the buyers. Much like insurance companies always make a net profit on insurance, and and the customers always have a net loss.
Even the “new” Vanguard VCMDX fund I have little faith in.
“This fund’s purpose is to serve investors as a potential hedge against inflation risk and as further diversification for a traditional stock/bond portfolio. The fund will rely on commodity derivative securities to maximize inflation protection by seeking to outperform its benchmark and reduce the long-term volatility of a well-diversified, balanced portfolio. The commodity-linked exposure will be collateralized with a mix of short-term Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS) and Treasury bills (T-bills).”
“Funny that they are then forced to loan it back to us to keep their stupid economy going. ”
Same thing with the shale. It’s not cash-positive from most accounts, yet they keep plowing money into it.
I have a feeling there is some kind of subsidy going on, to keep the prices in check in the interest of the wider economy: high food prices = people riot; high energy prices = the maxed out economy folds.
Some kind of subsidy you say? It’s called wall street investment firms. working with other peoples money. Witness all the dollar stores went up in small towns 10 miles apart. Theres not a tinkers chance in hell they can even pay the mortgage, lights and help, if done in a conventional way like an independent businessman would. Its always easy when you can spend someone elses money or better yet create it out of thin air. Smoke and mirrors.
No phd, masters, bachelors degree required.
The days of needing large acreage to be profitable no longer
High start up costs: yep..sweat & time do cost. No need for big $$ tractors & combines.
I can not think of a better time than now for the small farmer.
Unless you go the route of traditional farming. If corn, beans, dairy,
and govt. programs are your choice, then bring your $$$$.
Have you gotten out in farm country? I love the creativity that is taking
Make it a goal, not a dream. Do your research.
If you have references and proven spreadsheet’s I’d love to take a look. Your optimism for small farming is unique. Many professors and professionals I speak to say modern farming requires you to be equal parts accountant, economist, business manager, soil scientist, chemist, agronomist, mechanic, and engineer.
Time is the factor – every day you’re not making income – is another day of student debt interest.
I’ve got several excel sheets calculating the minimum needed to homestead, small 10 farms, and 100 acres and my Ph.D. is now focusing on agricultural Big Data – so research is name of the game. I’d definitely love links to your innovations. The biggest thing I have seen is regenerative agriculture slowly starting to take over, but it is very much in its infancy. And yes – I’ve spent 35+% of my life in farm country.
Your goal is to be self employed ( farmer) correct?
What type of farming do you want to do?
Were do you want to farm?
How many hours/week are you willing to put in?
Your from farm country. And your talking to professors, bankers, and govt.? The list of questions I have would fill a book.
What, were, and who. WHO will give me that shot. You cited information on average age of a farmer. If you have/do select a
area, travel it, get to know it, study county gis/landowner list. And then start contacting LANDOWNERS. A lease or land contract with a landowner may be an option.
Its a “dream” until its reality. I’m self employed. For the majority of us, its a lot of long hours. Be sure its a “passion”. I’ve been blessed to have spent my career outdoors.
These days one might ask…what is a farm?
There are vast farms of the commercial guys with endless fields of corn and soybeans. There are chicken farms, cattle farms, vertical farms, and wind farms, and no doubt many more.
So you might want to determine if you want to try to make a living from a mom & pop type farm or code for a living and be a ‘hobby’ farmer.
Or you might want to live in town and rent land for growing crops as my grandfather did.
So some type of goal setting might be in order then pursue it whole heartedly.
“(Bachelor’s in Economics and Philosophy, Master’s in Software Engineering) ”
Did your economics studies introduce to you Henry George? Maybe worth looking him up on Wikipedia, if not.
This missive will be followed by a link to a 2014 article, showing the average age of farm owners since 1950. It’s rising, and it’s been rising sharply since 1982–Earl Butz’s ‘innovations’ took time to have all of their effects on farmers. But the age of owners has been over 50 since 1956. Since family farms are usually owned by the “patriarch,” this stands to reason. It’s probably the same worldwide. Except during the settlement of virgin land, it’s probably been the same throughout history.
Afterthought: longer lifespans for almost all demographics have probably contributed a bit to the age rise.
Urban farming is the future now. Rooftop/hydroponic/vertical/robotic farming utilizing LEDs, sensors, data driven ect…
Cattle (bovine) are ruminants, so they can digest practically any organic matter.
… and they don’t require “rooftops” (etc). No way they will be as expensive home-grown as technological foodstuffs
Right … and don’t forget the candy and plastic !
Only being partially sarcastic, as that’s actually been used as cattle feed.
Nicko2 – I’ve looked into Urban Farming – Agri-towers, in particular, fascinate me. Years back when I lived on the East Coast I looked into starting an urban greenhouse – the rents, high taxes and wages, and costs like electricity I could not find a way to make it work. I’ve personally been amazed by how little places like NYC have done to encourage this. Urban smart farming definitely has potential, particularly for high-value stuff like leafy greens, but as of now – no one as really built one, and few of them are profitable. I’ve seen plenty of concept art for skyscraper towers, but as far as I know, no one as actually built one. A shame really.
Quick .. Someone retrofit the Goldman Sacks headquarters to produce greens, and wait-n-see how profitable THAT venture becomes ….
In all seriousness, I don’t see how vertical farming will work, without a reliable, and steady stream of e-juice and other imputs. To me, it reaks of wish-upon-a star-progressive idolatry ! … just like Jeffery’s dream of orbiting parks/cities.
Read this article for the $$ cost of the produce, much less the energy for the heat/cooling system and pumping the water. Only the wealthiest can afford that kind of produce. Vertical farming is just techno-fantasy as it doesn’t scale up to be affordable for your average consumer.
I would suggest you do some cursory watching/reading on Youtube: “Vertical Farming”.
This type of farming is not in it’s “infancy” and is in many cases already supplying some urban areas with reasonably priced crops. The hurdle is to find a way to grow “orchard” and “veggie root” crops.
This is no longer a “dream” or “fantasy”.
I can relate. For ten years while working a regular job, my family and I lived on a small ranch in the west Texas Hill Country. We had good land for growing hay and a small herd of cattle and goats. We usually made money in the years with good weather but it was largely a break even operation. I had hoped to be able to expand over the years and acquire more land but that didn’t happen. My kids loved having animals and living in the country. Now a rich guy from San Antonio owns it and he just uses it on the occasional weekend. He doesn’t raise any crops or livestock.
I escaped from the farm to the navy when I was
18. You have to KNOW how to farm, you can’t pick
it up when you are older. My brother  is
farming the home farm and renting adjacent
crop land. HE is barely making it.
Hobby farms are a money sink, which is okay if you
are rich, price of new or used equipment will kill you.
Who is gonna farm the land ten years from now?
Trump’s tariffs and Chinese refusing
on taking any US soybeans are devastating
soybeans farmers due to low prices and
without any big replacement markets
I taken to occasionally watching RFD TV to relax. Antique tractor auctions with interviews of old geezers who restore them . Now I’m watching ‘Machinery Pete’ an auction of farm machinery coming from Murray, Nebraska with, of course, an update on farm bankruptcies with Wisconsin leading the nation with 45 in the past 12 months. Now a story on Hemp College in Altoona, Ia!
Nonetheless somebody is making money as these auctions are well attended with a bunch of farmers standing around spending over 100k for a piece of equipment I have no idea what it is for but they need it. Now they are auctioning a Deere 9830 tractor. Sold for $97,000.
Some anecdotes. Back in my college days I was invited to spend the weekend in Santa Cruz at the beach house of a friend whose family grew grapes for raisins near Delano in Calfornia’s Central Valley. The father complained he couldn’t make any money as the mother told us about their recent European vacation! Farmers always say they make no money but somehow they don’t seem poor.
Years later I was in rural Virginia and worked with a guy who ran cattle on his land. He was always looking to acquire more land so he could lose more money I guess. There was a textile mill nearby and he was looking to get the ‘lint’ from the cleaning of the machinery at the mill because he figured he could feed it to his cattle! I was appalled but he was quite serious.
A used Deere 9630 in good conditions (no major repairs needed, tyres/tracks with at least 50% life left, under 6,000 hours etc) is a fair deal at that price. Of course if it’s a non-runner or, even worse, there are surprises waiting the new owner, it may turn into an expensive nightmare as parts for those things are insanely priced. That’s a major reason why leasing is so attractive these days on that kind of equipment.
Regarding vintage agri/forestry machinery… it’s beyond insane and another product of the Everything Bubble.
I have seen two-man chainsaws that were already completely obsolete when I was in my mother’s womb up for sale for thousands of dollars… who wants those things? Websites/social media groups are full of people trying to flog these pieces of bric-à-brac at eye-watering prices and of other people encouraging them (but not offering a penny).
I remember one website once had the pictures of a shed taken by the heirs of an old man who had suddenly passed away.
It was literally packed with old chainsaws, product of over a decade of misguided purchases. It literally defied belief.
Most of these chainsaws were in what I can only call a dilapidated state and the heirs were advertising a “pound sale”: you could come around and they would sell you whatever you wanted for a couple dollars per pound. A fair price for scrap material.
My grandparents had a back yard victory garden in fertile loam soil during WWII. They also had a cherry tree in their backyard.
I planted an avocado tree on a property I owned.
My brother and his wife have a large lot in Vermont. They had vegetables, apple trees, berries, chickens and tapped maple trees to make syrup. He set up solar panels in their yard. They have full time professional jobs.
Do pay attention to the percentage of US land owned by China- and leased back to US farmers etc….- Also Smithfield Foods- the largest pork producer in the US is OWNED by China…..
Just because there is publicity that agricultural products are shipped from the US does NOT mean that any of the land, the crops nor the animals are owned by Americans, either human beings, or corporate entities. The few corporate entity ownership is rooted in a few families- especially Koch Industries, DeVos, and a handful more. The corporate family ownership groups can be counted on both hands, like ten fingers…..The rest are really franchisees, if a good percentage can even rate that title in the hierarchies of laborers/slaves.
I’m glad I’m old. I hope all you youngsters enjoy your lives with giant corporations controlling everything about your food supplies.
Because of course you know that they care for you and only want to provide excellent and healthy food to you.
And if you believe that, I think I can still get you a deal on a bit of Florida swampland that is of course going to be a fabulous resort community and I can get you in on the ground floor with a lot with a fine view of the 18th hole and the clubhouse. Please bring your own boat to view the property.
No family farms and no family doctors. Only giant corporations in control of your food and your health. I’m glad I’m dying soon and won’t see much of that world. But, hope ya’ll have real good luck with that!
Dear Adam, please write more often. Loved reading the article!
My advice is , farming is a tricky trade. Start small, I mean backyard small, grow your food and learn the big truths on small projects and failures. And then one day, when you have the knowledge and the money…the farm might become more then just a hope.
Your dream of becoming a farmer runs the same risks as that of starting up your own business. The risks of failure run very high. It takes a very special kind of person to be a farmer!
My Mother was raised on a farm. My Grandfather, a rebel – kicked out of school in grade 5 for fighting, left the farm at a young age, trained in Toronto as a mechanic, then worked in Windsor in the 1920s fixing rejects off the car assembly line. He returned to the farm when his step Dad, whom he didn’t get along with, died taking over the family farm.
Ironically his mechanical ability prepared him well for the ensuing mechanization of farms that occurred in the 1930s in southern Ontario. He was quick to mechanized and use fertilizer. He was often repairing his neighbor’s farm equipment. He was one of the first to own the more complex farm machinery like hay bailers and combines.
He was also a very good business man. At his peak he owned well over a square mile of mixed farming where average farms ran 100 acres. He ran a John Deere dealership too. He also had many hired hands working for him. Lunch on the farm was supper! Grandpa said he couldn’t afford to pay his hired hands any more than any other farmer but he could sure feed them better!
Grandma was a great cook! That was a competitive advantage for my Grandfather! My Mom was also a great cook. I think that is why my Dad, a mining engineer married my Mom, a nurse!
When my Grandfather sold his many farms, and so called retired, he kept his tractor, bailer, and combine and did work for his neighbors during the xummer.
Due to crop spraying he had many bouts of phneumonia in the 1940s and his doctor told him he better head to Florida during the winter or he would surely die young.
Grandpa being a typical farmer was land rich but cash poor! What he noticed in Florida was that there were lots of pine trees growing in Florida but they grew so fast that they made poor Xmas trees!
So to provide for a cash crop to pay for winter in Florida, he started growing Xmas trees! Now you need lots of land to grow Xmas trees. Land was too expensive to buy! His solution was to drive around the countryside looking for neglected Xmas trees planted by rich Toronto weekend farmers hoping to get rich growing Xmas trees but not realizing how much work is involved in trimming the trees plus fertilizing them.
He would then buy the cutting rights for these neglected Xmas trees. Then in early June he would prune and fertilized these trees. He then harvested and bailed the trees in late November, early December. He then shipped the Xmas trees down to Orlando. He made a deal with the local Orlando Boy Scouts to unload and sell the trees. All of this was from the late 1940s into the 1970s!
Whenever anybody asked him where he was shipping his Xmas trees to, he said to Toronto!
Now I loved being around my Grandfather! He was such a good judge of character, something he learned while driving a taxi!
And he sure looked like the typical stereotype of a dumb farmer! Straw hat, wore coveralls held up by suspenders, chewed tobacco. I once asked him if this image ever bothered him? No, he replied, “The dumber they think I am, the more money I can make off of them!” Another of his competitive advantages!
All his farm dogs were named Tobbie! They never let Grandpa out of their sight! They were always the first to get into his pickup truck too! Didn’t want to be left behind!
Needless to say my Grandfather was into everything! You know like raising rabbits without a meat licence! Boy do I remember when the local police showed up to discuss this little issue over a beer in the backyard while Grandma suddenly grabbed us kids and went shopping!
I wonder who squeal on him! Guess she had gotten tired of looking after all those rabbits. Six pairs became 600 rather quickly! We kids sure loved chasing and catching those cute little baby rabbits that escaped their cages!
Once Grandpa let me, about 6 or 7, drive his big John Deere tractor so he and a hired hand could pile the bailed dry hay on to the hay wagon faster! At lunchtime I was so excited I told Mom that Grandpa had let me drive his big tractor! Needless to say I should have kept my mouth shut! Mom gave Grandpa holy hell and I was grounded!
In the 1930s the family liked to visit the Ex in Toronto the week before Labor Day. Grandpa would brew up some moonshine just to pay for this!
I think I should stop now! My farm memories are endless! It was such a happy time during my childhood! We used to spend the summer months at the farm because the weather up in Labrador’s iron mines was terrible!
Happy farming Adam!
I think Wolf needs a few more farming articles.
Thanks Tom! And I loved writing about my Grandfather! My Grandfather was such a character! He once got so mad at his step Father that he went into the barn and shot the hell out of the inside of the barn with his 22! The sheriff wisely waited outside until he ran out of ammunition!
The only one who could control Grandpa was Grandma! She would just say Ernest! The rabbits did however try Grandma’s patience!
I worked for almost 40 years for a company that participated in a segment of the agriculture business. The last half of that career was doing business analysis work. From dirt to table agriculture is a huge complex business. One of the things I did in the mid-90’s was look at who made the profits. There were lots of small segments making okay money, but two groups stood out as sharing a fairly large majority of the profits – farmers and the big food processors. It was also notable that about half of the farmers income came from government payments in one form or another.
There is a well manicured image of the struggling farmer trying to make a living off the dirt of our land. At that time, the truth was that most farmers were able to earn a comfortable living for their families. I suspect that it is also true today. In fact, one of my wife’s relatives is an example.
What constitutes a farmer can vary from someone running tens of thousands of acres of commodity crops such as corn, soybeans or wheat to a weekend tractor jockey raising veggies on a few acres. There are a lot of farmers who hold full time jobs outside of the farm – typically farming from tens to a few hundred acres.
Becoming a successful full time farmer supporting a family is a formidable challenge. It takes brains, experience, capital and sweat. The average American deciding on a mid-life career change to farming to gain security by living off the land is not going to make it. A successful American with boatloads of cash to buy what he needs may have a chance – though he will have huge disenchantment issues. An energetic person with passion, drive and determination can certainly make it in farming. He will start out scratching to get by, but can make it. Like everything else, you start at the beginning, not the end.
Incidentally, the typical full time successful farmer does not have the security of “living off the land”. He produces from the land, exchanges his production for $$$$ and then goes to the grocery store, Walmart, Home Depot, etc just like the rest of us.
When I was in high school in southeast Nebraska, I worked for area farmers during the summer.
I noticed that the successful farmers limited their borrowing and maintained their equipment themselves. They would store their machinery inside a huge sheds and do extensive maintenance during the winter. They didn’t spend much on new equipment.
At the beginning of one summer, I spent a couple of weeks working for one of the other types of farmers. I replaced bearings, chains, and did all sorts of other maintenance that wouldn’t have been necessary if the equipment had been stored inside during the winter.
Like any other business, well managed farms tend to succeed.
Farming is not what many believe it to be. It is a daily bath in toxic chemicals
It is one of the most dangerous occupations. Fast death by accident or slow death by chemicals-take your pick. BTW, cop is not even on the list of dangerous jobs.
It is very dangerous. My Uncle had a farm which was later sold to one of his sons. He fell off the roof of one his sheds while doing maintenance and suffered a concussion. Luckily one of his children found him (he had eight children all of whom did “chores” which helps in farming). Another time his foot got caught in some machinery and almost tore it off. The son that bought the farm from him went to college to study farming, and his son is successful, but he grew up on a farm, bought the farm from his father, has relatives on farms nearby who pool their expensive equipment, is very smart and extremely hard working. Most businesses fail, except for the ones whose business owners have experience in the type of business that they buy. Farming is brutally hard work (from my perspective) and is subject to all sorts of risks which normally one would try to minimize. But I wish anyone well who would try such an endeavor.
You may want to apply those desired values and attitudes from farm life already.
Slow down and work yourself debt free first.
A couple of decades ago, I was visiting a farmer in Siskiyou County, NorCal. He told me he bought his first 125 acres just after WWII. Told me he paid 25 cents an acre.
He said, “I would have bought more if I could have afforded it.”
Left out the Dept. of Agriculture who harass small farmers with regulations to the point of being unable to produce a profitable product. There is always the corporate farm willing to take over the small farm. THEY don’t get the same DofA treatment.
Stop repeating this nonsense. We *too* can eat almost anything, and a family in Siberia survived on lichen and tree bark for a few generations. Just because we *can* do something while shitting blood for a few years, doesn’t mean its a healthy thing to do and we won’t end up with colon cancer. I have many ruminants, so trust me when I tell you, the digestive system of a cow (*especially* a dairy cow) is more delicate and its balance more fragile than a human’s mono gastric system.
And before you go on repeating the ‘goats will eat anything’ nonsense that Disney helped perpetuate with their cartoons in the 30s, know that they are in fact *the most* picky eaters on the farm.
Paul: Please don’t rain on Adam’s dream of being a farmer! A man needs a dream to survive in this tough world!
Yes, goats are picky eaters, but only to a point! However they do like paper money! The higher denomination, the tastier!
Now having a goat milk fight is fun even if the goats don’t like it much!
But be sure to put wooden triangles around their necks to keep them from jumping or going through your fences!
Yeah, also don’t turn your back on the Billy goat!
Then there is this kid in the African Congo who is still looking for his goat! Tied that dam goat to a fence to graze just outside of my bedroom window while I was working night shifts and trying to sleep during the day!
After several days of that goat baaaaing, I got up and untied the dam rope so I could get some sleep! Kid had the nerve to knock on the door and asked if I had seen his goat!
Wes, I wasn’t trying to rain on Adam’s dream, quite the opposite. I’m living it as we speak. I was attempting to reply to the numbscull in the thread that keeps repeating the ‘ruminants can eat anything!’ meme.
The old cartoon of a goat eating a tin can …. labels used to be applied using “wheat paste” good old flour and water. A goat would pick up a can and gently chew off the label for a wheaty treat. They were not eating the damn cans.
Yes. One big reason for the overuse of antibiotics to rear livestock is our national insistence on feeding corn to steers. Corn does make them add weight (and meat) with unnatural speed, but since bovines don’t digest it easily, it leads to all sort of problems, such as weakened immune systems. Which ‘requires’ antibiotics to counteract the weakening. Steers do eat corn, but it ain’t good for ’em. Or us.
you need to attack the corporate farmers, take away the subsidies and tax breaks. Russia is competing hard in the grain market, landing wheat in the Med at half the price the USA can. Brazil and Russia will be the suppliers of choice for China.
Land prices don’t always go up, I have seen some really ugly times. Timing is important and I wouldn’t be touching land at present. Low interest rates have inflated all assets, if interest rates ‘ normalise’ then values would more than half.
One way to sort of farm without owning land is beekeeping. If you live near a rural area and get to know some of the locals, it’s an easy sell to get a farmer/rancher to let you put some hives on their property. Heck, they might even pay you. In any case, you should at least be able to get some honey.
FWIW, I wound up in computing and, despite bucking some hay bales in my youth, the only kind of farming I’ve ever been able to do is server farming. Retired now, with a small garden in the backyard.
No mention in the article of how many farmers are on welfare. Most people don’t know that dairy farmers receive 75% of their income from subsidies. They are on welfare. The taxpayers are paying them to live a rural fantasy making something the people don’t want. The government makes a lot of the milk into cheese and stores it in huge caves because it can’t give it away fast enough. If the dairy farmers were in a capitalist system, 75% of them would be closed.
Besides corn farmers making ethanol, there are many more examples of farming being a huge boondoggle. I think of it as Tesla in the country.
Many of the so-called freedom loving, self-reliant farmers are just welfare queens driving $90,000 pickup trucks and wearing cowboy hats.
True. I know many of them. And 100% hire illegal immigrants.
Farmers are on welfare so you can afford the price of bread at the grocery store. Inflation is the reason farmers are on welfare and small farms are drying up.
Why haven’t wages increased so we can afford the increase in bread prices? Is it unrealistic to expect wages to increase at the same rate of inflation?
They should increase, along with everything else. The problem is financial manipulation transferring wealth to the top 10% while everyone else has to fight among each other to survive on scraps.
Food prices and wages have been below inflation levels for decades, but stocks manage to keep up even with 10 year reset cycles. Farmers didn’t manipulate the system, governing parties use them as pawns in their electoral chess matches.
A couple of years ago I flew on Cathay Pacific beside a mother and daughter who had just been to Luang Prabang. We talked. She was a doctor here in Manhattan and her husband was a well known sculptor. They bought a farm just north of the city, I think in Rockland County. He needed a studio for his sculpting and the barn was a perfect structure. They both did not know how to farm but their friend was interested in organic farming. Turns out they were very successful at providing fresh organic greens to Manhattan’s upscale restaurants and hotels. They were on a profit sharing scheme. One family provided assets and the partner provided sweat and expertise.
I thought I would provide this as a story with a happy ending.
LoL, the great fantasy of living off the land. My g-grandfather was sharecropping in Mesilla Park NM in 1911- he had to work up in Silver City as a carpenter to pay the damned bills.
Even over a century ago it was near impossible to have a small family farm, and the 21st century should be obvious that it is over.
The new farm crash happening from the Trump trade war is going to be epic- cheap food as far as the wallet can stretch, on the backs of bankrupt smaller farmers.
They are doomed. And the subsidies are a waste of time.
And hobby farming is a tax subsidized hobby that entails a crazy amount of work.
Decaying towns and farmhouses litter the midwest.
Next we will start removing rural roads to plant more, and cut the taxes needed to maintain them.
What an EXCELLENT thread!!
I did the rural-ish “survivalist/permaculture compound” thing for a few years. What killed it for me is the guy running the place is more about some kind of weird “cult of personality” than actual permaculture. I still learned a lot though.
You can’t compete with the big boys. I’d advise against selling farm products for profit, but “boutique” products might work, that you sell on Ebay, Etsy, Amazon, or through your own web site.
To me the winning strategy would be to work your ass off and stack up a nice high-earning 10 years at least so your Social Security payments will be big. My boss is due to get about $3500 a month. Me, I’ll get like $1200 a month because I’ve never been the earner he’s been.
Look into FIRE (Financial Independence, Early Retirement) ideas. You want to get onto your acreage before you’re old and decrepit.
Think of it more “gardening” than “farming”; this last being producing for profit. You will not come out ahead of working in a warehouse for min. wage and buying your food at Safeway, but you will eat better food and have tons more fun.
Think in terms of being rounded. Veggie garden, grow some corn and potatoes, keep chickens, raise a “weaner” pig or cow you slaughter in the fall, etc. Or maybe goats appeal to you.
This is NOT a money-making way of life. But it’d beat hell out of working at Home Depot until you’re old and used up and then praying you can keep under a rented roof.
Also there’s the matter of getting old. I’ve lived where it’s fairly remote, and one thing people would get is “helicopter insurance”. This is so if you have to be helivac’ed to a major hospital you don’t end up with a $20k+ bill. It happens.
It’s a huge shift of gears from the typical modern Nintendo upbringing. You’ll deal with poo, and worms, and how things rot, and the right way for them to rot, and good bugs and bad bugs, and so on. Where I was, we grew corn with no pesticides and never a thought of needing them. I liked how the very occasional ear would be opened to reveal a little catarpillar who’d considerately eaten each of the few kernals consumed, whole before starting on the next one. The “pest tax” is really, really low on a properly run permaculture operation.
And after all this, if you’re really serious about survivalist type stuff, read up on the saga of one “Ferfal” who, in his many posts, would occasionally let his hair down and admit that the survival was often much better in the cities, as rural homesteads would get plundered with all hands killed, with impunity. He and his family eventually moved to a small city in Ireland.
How in the world to you feel qualified to give financial advice?
BTW, the way to wealth isn’t stacking up 10 years of SS earnings then holding your breath until FRA, whatever that will be in the future.
He never said it was a way to wealth. Some people don’t value monetary excess. Seems to me he’s giving life advice, not financial advice….and we all got a story to tell. He’s valid in that.
What most here don’t realize is that the socio-economic classes have become hardened. Obviously, make what money you can. But if you’re at a certain rung on the money/class ladder, try your best not to fall further downward, and to save money.
You want social mobility, get out of the US, preferably when you’re young.
I sense something wrong here. As you have always wanted a farm, surely it would have made more sense to have gotten an agriculturally-related degree then at least paying off the debt would be going in the same direction. Whereas what you seem to have done is approach your dream from a tangent. Which is why you sound like you are trying to talk yourself out of what you want by focussing on the downsides.
In order to transform your dream into reality, it is essential first to define your terms. To any aspect, ask why and keep asking why until honest with yourself you identify what you are in need of. I should think it is perfectly possible to make incremental changes to align
your current situation into sync. All that is necessary is ingenuity, dedication and focus. The volume of help amongst these comments should be enough to convince you that you would get help in practice simply by offering your labour and services to farmers.
Before somebody decides to go into farming, they need to use some business software/spreadsheet and see if it’s possible to make a profit. Money out vs. money in. People make the biggest decision (mistake) of their lives based on seat-of-the-pants guesswork and bong hit fantasies.
“Being a farmhand these days, or renting farmland, is close to a sharecropper or a serf.”
But 3k pa in the bank compared to your debts sounds like you think yourself superior?
Exchanging a 9 to 5 job for 5am to 9pm is the stuff of diggers and dreamers.
The security you yearn comes not from ownership but from within.
One word of advice to Andrew – you need some farming background to be sucessful (need a mentor), and and you need to grow the farm operation yearly and keep up with the latest advancements in farming practices. Diversify as much as possible. Be prepared to great years and terrible years. Always buy crop insurance when economically feasible. Partner with trustworthy tenants and landlords, and be flexible in your leases as farm income changes greatly each year. Trust is everything in farming, never ruin your name as partnerships and networks are crucial.
The one point I want to address to this forum in general is “Corporate farming” and “Farmer Welfare”. I grew my farm from nothing to a very large “Corporate” farming operation over the last 25 years. You have two choices with farming, grow or die trying. If I had a choice, I would have kept the farm smaller at only a few hundred acres as that would be much easier to manage. Instead I manage thousands of acres. Corporate farming is not the evil most think, as I provide a lot of jobs when I improve the farm properties to some of the poorest areas in America. I also provide a huge amount of property tax revenue that keeps the local goverments afloat. I know I cause some damage, as it is obvious that certain chemicals are going to make our bees extinct soon, and I also know that ethanol is a scam, yet we need a better algae based or biomass alternative, yet it can not be done on a large scale yet…thus we do the best we can with ethanol for now. And the “Welfare” everyone who is not in farming thinks they know about, let me give you the 10 year farm bill recently passed, along with how it relates to my “corporate welfare” breakdown:
$867 Billion – 2018 to 2028 farming bill total cost ($86.7Billion/year)
$664 Billion/Decade – SNAP (Food stamps) 76.5% of Farm Bill cost is for free food for Americans who need help to keep from starving, and no farmer sees any of this money unless they qualify for food stamps.
$78 Billion/Decade – Farm Insurance Program For my coporate farms, this covers about 50% of my farm crop insurance costs, which is about $4,000 of free money for every $100,000 of profit I make. I only claim the insurance about 1-2 times per decade, and can say without this insurance I would have been destroyed during a few droughts. The reason the government pays half is that we could easily see many of the farmers go bankrupt in a few short years without such a program, and without food production it becomes a national security issue. Even with the 50% payment, I believe only about half of farmers use crop insurance. Basically, think of the crop insurance like Obamacare subsidies, without it, not many would sign up and the costs would be greater for the whole of society than the subsidy over time. Do I think I need it being a corporate farmer, no. Do I think 90% of the farmers need it, yes.
$61 Billion/Decade – Commodity Program, also called CRP. This is a program that I try to avoid, as for example it will pay $126/acre for 10 years on a waterway to lay it out and not farm it, but I can make$185/acre farming the waterway if I put in dry ponds and tile to remove the waterway. The CRP programs should go away mostly, as I improve my farms to near 100% tillable acreage, instead of getting paid half as much to not improve or farm it. The paperwork is excessive, the fines are excessive (I was recently threatened $53,000 last year in fines because I missed signing a 3 acre CRP contract that paid $330/year), and the program is mostly used by hobby farmers. It is a waste, out of every $100,000 in profit, I get less than $3,000 from CRP, and I will have it to zero in another 10 years. The government pays people to walk your fields, study ariel images…just to see if you accidently planted the a crop on a tiny portion of a waterway. I once had to destroy 10 acres of soybeans as my tenant got confused and planted a laid out section of a field. I could not even donate the profits to charity, they made us destroy the crop. Paying farmers not to farm land is lunacy, and a boondoggle at best!
$59 Billion/Decade – Conservation Programs. These are programs to help pay for improving the land, installing tile, dry ponds, waterways, etc. I pays nothing for clearing land of trees, and you can not get paid for any improvement on land recently cleared of trees. This program is simply used to keep the furtile topsoil in the fields, and not in the rivers and lakes. It also helps reduce the chemical runoff, improves the yields (especially tile), and allows more acreage to be farmed versus put into the CRP programs and paid not to farm. This program is good for the environment, and good for the planet IMHO. I support this program, although it takes three to four years to get approval, and a decade ago it would take three months maximum. The regulations have gotten excessive, and their are not enough government employees to keep up with the volumes of projects.
So as you can see, my “corporate welfare” is about $7,000/$100,000 profit. It will soon be only $4,000/$100,000 profit. My corporation is not getting rich on welfare, as my property taxes run between 6% to 15% per acre, averaging around 10,000/$100,000 profit, and I utilize none of the school systems, water system, etc that the property taxes pay for in these poorer rural areas. If you think about it, more comes out of my “Corporate Farm” in property taxes than comes in with government “welfare”. On top of that, I hire a lot of dirt work for land improvements, paying $140/hour when they use their own equipment. I buy all my supplies locally, buy equipment locally, pay my workers lunch cost at local restarants, invest in economic opportunity zones, donate to the schools, give land to churches, etc. My company is not exactly the evil to those who live in the area I own my farms, it only seems to be evil to those who need to visit one instead. Could I do better, yes. Do I need to do better, yes. Yet of all the busineses I have started and owned, this is the only one that makes me “feel” I am having a positive impact on society, versus just making money for the sake of making money. To be honest, all that is left in these rural areas is farming, so pray that does not die too. And as they saying goes, “If you are going to complain about farmers, don’t talk with your mouth full” =)
Keep an open mind, and don’t believe everything you think…
Well done Corporate Farmer; that’s a lot of accurate info packed into a (relatively) small post.
Since you are a serial entrepreneur with rural background… can you think of any new industries that can fill the jobs void in the hollowed-out sections of rural America?
Maybe instead of growing crops for sale, it’s a set of appropriate technologies which support a new lifestyle.
“Appropriate” in the sense that they’re tools/technologies which don’t need a lot of capital, can be built by a homeowner, can generate value from inputs of water, soil, air, sunlight … which are often free to a landowner.
There is a big market for this sort of appropriate tech, and yet I’m not seeing much of it….because the people that would buy it don’t have much money to buy it with…so no one wants to produce it.
Noodle on that, all you creative types who happen across this thread…
Tom – I think there will be a lot of opportunity for rural folks to learn how to use 3D printers in the future, and depend less on the manufacturing industry to survive and ultimately thrive. If you can grow your own food, and make your own products via a 3D printer, there is not much left in terms of needs. 3D printer costs are still high and the strengh of materials is not quite there yet, but give it time.
Also, rural folks could learn to service the automated high tech machines that will be used both in the city and country. We already use auto-driving machines on our farm for harvest and planting, drones to detect issues and map fields, etc. It will not be long before the grain will be driving itself to the grain elevators. All this automation will need to be serviced, repaired, inspected, etc.
I also think in 20 to 30 years, the governments of the world will have to pay landowners to plant certain carbon catching plants and/or processes. Global warming is real, no matter if completely natural or man-made alone, does not matter as it will be the biggest risk to human survival over the next fifty years (behind only perhaps an asteroid strike, airborne deadly virus, or massive direct hit solar flare). May not matter as in another 100 to 200 years, humans will most likely be pets to self aware AI bots…=)
“Farming for me represents safety and independence against this backdrop of chaos.”
What a nerve this thread has struck for Mr. Wolf’s readers. But reading through the piece carefully, especially the comments of young Mr. Williams himself, what strikes me is how often he mentions his student loan debt – his true “backdrop of chaos.” In 2005 we changed the bankruptcy laws making this “chaos” non-dischargeable. Not a modification making it more longer or slightly more difficult, but to your death non-dischargeable, saddling – since we are down on the farm here – these kids with a yoke making them and their debt the new plow horses of our economy. It probably is a bit misguided thinking modern farming equals independence but it’s a dream of creating for yourself a better life style not unlike thousands upon thousands of like dreams, never to be explored by this next generation. I am a Boomer. I paid $264 per semester for graduate school. I dreamed hard and then worked harder and built a business, made some money and sent my kids to good schools. I did all these things because my generation did not have this burden of ‘student debt’ hanging over us. It’s shameful what we have done to this next generation.
Wolf is very understandably protective of his turf – He’s built an admirable source of solid information on the web and precludes others from using it to boost their websites, as best he can.
But he has been somewhat tolerant of my boosterism. The site I write for (no pay) has a relatively small in-group.
So, since my whole pitch is to my way of life, which fits this thread quite well, maybe Wolf will allow me to again cite my seminal posting there:
A tendency seems to have been forming for decades. First, GMO “farming” with seeds that contaminate nearby crops, rendering the seeds infertile, forcing farmers to buy GMO every year, which is subsidized (probably only for awhile). Next came the draughts, then floods, and most recently, the trade war with China that forced, and are forcing farmers into bankruptcy.
(As a side note, I remember, about ten years ago, I read that farm subsidies were granted to a congressman for NOT growing anything… Considering the way politicians are elected, it’s hard not to believe it. In fact, prior to 2012, even the Time magazine carried read data…)
Guess, who is going to buy up the farmland for pennies on the dollar after the farmers are gone and the land is taken as collateral?
You don’t need a PhD to answer the question, but that is forgiven. :)
Why we may find fake food so available and healthy food not available? However, if our children ever find themselves, they may re-discover land based farming or using plastic greenhouses or warehouses which can be what this individual needs using “Crowd Funding”to establish himself;
—–forget that; as critical thinking was not taught to the educated mindless dreamers and I would find it difficult to invest in them after a brief questioning. Farming is a “business” which means such skills are more important than planting crops or what he calls
farming. He may realize that he could be farming yesterday if only he could think to create real values and not the scrapes of paper he so proudly virtue signals. –jd
My dream is to do something in the crypto space. Am looking into running a Lightning Node or even a full bitcoin node. Both help in the evolution and rolling out of the technology as well as giving me experience and education. The latter two are, of course, an investment which would likely pay dividends in the future (but unlikely so for an oldie like me. I just do it for the fun). Don’t know the average age of those in this space but I doubt it’s anywhere near 58, more like 28, if that.
grew up on a large farm in Washington state and being the 2nd son had no chance to buy the family farm or any other farm and this was back in the mid 60’s. Today my brother who owns the farm is looking for a buyer and they are in short supply.
an income producing farm is in reality a large commercial or industrial location and requires significant capital in order to survive long term and provide a meaningful income that will support a growing family. The issue is not the current age of farmers but the capital requirements necessary to start and maintain one. Farming is big business and if someone outside the industry wants to farm they best find a small niche and keep the full time job.
Why do you want a PhD? Maybe teach at a university in a smaller community.
Acre the student loans. Risk some capital in Bitcoin. It’s your only shot.
You wouldn’t be in such a tough spot starting up farming if you would gave invested that student debt into education based on agriculture and not philosophy. It isn’t cheap to start up, the equipment is insanely expensive and being raised on a farm doesn’t guarantee you can continue farming the “family farm” in the future.
Farming is no longer small time anymore, to do a small farm requires cash heavy investment and no debt. There won’t be enough profit to cover the interest payments if you don’t go big enough, but get too big and the man power, land and equipment costs tip the scale the other way and you run out of time in a day.
Good luck on your new direction, pick a spot based on land quality and grow from there.
My youth and memories of time on my Uncle Matt’s farm in central Minnesota permanently ingrained a desire to farm. After a career as a crop duster pilot and many investments and business startups at age 46, we bought 40 acres of dry land in the Lodi area of California. Banks repeatedly refused me loans. We used a loan on the house, and credit cards to get started, which is still part of my financing package. I hate banks! We bought old equipment and began the massive effort to plant 25 acres of wine grapes in 1997. After 5 years and two harvests I realized we would never make a living or even keep the farm if we continued trying to sell grapes.
22 years of killer work and constant risk we have a very successful winery operation with sales in 45 states. In looking back as I am now the old guy who owns the farm, it was way to hard to get established when we started and much harder today. I don’t know any farmers that didn’t inherit big in my area, we are loners to have started without a big inheritance.
This has been a delightful morning read, I’m so thankful for this blog and the unusual collection of thoughtful people who contribute here. This is a rare thing.
I’m surprised that there’s room for me to add any insight to this forum but something incredibly key has been missed: one of the major forces today hindering a new generation of young farmers from building farms is competition from wealthy folks who hobby farm (with no intention of making a profit). I apologize, as I understand this is addressed to many of our readers who were blessed with the ability to move somewhere beautiful for retirement and put their savings into a piece of farmland. I have lived through this situation myself and I see it play out all over the country.
Let’s leave the Midwest aside for a moment and consider the many rural parts of the country which have suffered from being within commuting distance to major economic bubbles. I am speaking about the Seattle area for instance, but I have seen the same dynamic across the country. These are places where tourists and wealthy residents will readily pay $6/doz for organic eggs, $8 for a loaf of bread, and $5-$10 for little baskets of fruit and frozen meats for $8-$15/lb by the roadside. Normally this would be the land of opportunity for an enterprising young farmer, because real money could actually be generated from tiny amounts of land (and we’re talking $40k an acre here because all the tech millionaires build vacation homes next door)
But here’s the catch, those tech guys get bored in their vacation homes and they think, that looks fun – let’s start a (berry, chicken, lamb, CSA, cut flower, etc) farm. As an added incentive, it means they can put their money into a fine loophole which won’t tax their luxurious estate anymore, and they will even be eligible for grant and development money from the government. In fact for a lot of these people, the tax advantage will usually net more money than farm sales could even dream of.
Fast forward to a younger family that buys (finances) the twenty acres next door and gets to work on their operation and farm stand. They go deeply into debt to develop or revive a farm and create a decent place for their family to live. Imagine the feeling of hopelessness when they finally get products to market, only to find out that the competition undercutting their prices are “farming for fun” and weren’t in it for the money at all – Ouch!
I lived through this development for over ten years, and watched the profitability of our glorious little farm fall from $50k/yr to less than $20k For the amount of labor it ended up making more sense to put on a tool belt and start building those mansions next door instead. Even my dang kids have been affected. They used to make thousands of dollars selling eggs and berry syrup at the summer farmers markets… now their competition is a retired Harvard professor who spent $50k on a roadside stand with flat screen tvs and a 2nd story viewing room. The farm dream feels pretty dead and we and our friends have moved on. The only guys I know surviving are making alcohol or oysters.
We understand, this type of farming is very alluring in a world where most people don’t know where their food comes from. Manual labor makes you feel alive and farming teaches you a lot about yourself and the Earth. I don’t blame anybody for chasing a self-sufficiency dream after living off of processed faux-food your whole life. But please, if you are embarking on this adventure, consider the struggle of those who are farming to survive and maybe just grow food for you, God knows that’s still plenty of opportunity to get your feet muddy.
I love this online community – Thank you Wolf!
“This has been a delightful morning read, I’m so thankful for this blog and the unusual collection of thoughtful people who contribute here. This is a rare thing.”
LukeK, sounds like you live in my neck of the woods (Salish Sea?). I live on one of those tourist/second home destination islands, and boy howdy your observations are spot on! Hobby farms galore, funded by tech money, driving the price of farmland into the stratosphere. The young people hoping to farm for a living don’t really stand a chance. And yes, the tax abatement programs benefit the large landowners in a most perverse way: they get a tax break for their hobby farms, which means that everyone else’s taxes must go up to cover the shortfall. The tax breaks are money directly into the pocket of the landowner, as they are under no obligation to put any of that money back in the land, with the result that a lot of land in ag conservancy is really being just worn out.
It’s rural gentrification, plain and simple. There’s no way for working farmers to compete with people who have money to burn. (Rather like Amazon, surprise surprise.)
One more downside to this situation is that the locals have become very dependent on this firehose of Seattle/Portland money, and we’ve gotten used to having “nice things” due to the largesse of the landed gentry. But I remember well the aftermath of the GFC, when that money disappeared–no one was building new homes, tourism went way down, donations to community orgs dried up.
The fact is that the wealthy people who claim to “love the islands” will stop spending when things get tight. it’s a very fragile economy.
Milk that software cow for now Adam and forget about farming–it’s a crap shoot at best. I, too, had grandparents who were farmers and they struggled constantly with all kinds of difficulties, worked seven-days a week, etc. There’s a good reason for the average age being 58.
The old joke about farming …
“Q: How do you make a small fortune farming?”
“A: Start with a large fortune!”
I was going to paraphrase Richard Branson:
“Q: How do you become a millionaire?
“A: Start with a billionaire and then start farming.”
The commentary above from the fellow who moved to Vietnam got me to thinking. A few years ago I was in Cambodia. Spent an evening at a local hotel talking to a New Zealand banker who was working in Phnom Penh for ANZ Bank. Most of his bank’s biggest loans were to Aussie dairy farmers who were setting up operations in Cambodia. Land was dirt cheap, weather good, plentiful water, etc. Their product (powdered milk) was in big demand in Asia; mostly China.
So for them, the decision was easy. Farming in Australia was getting cost prohibitive, so they moved their operations to Cambodia. In addition to the lower operating costs, they were closer to their target market (Asia and SE Asia) so a significant cost-savings was also realized from lower shipping costs.
Starting a small farm now in this country seems ill-advised. As long as the cost of American farm land remains high, it will be a significant barrier to entry.
If you absolutely, positively have to live out your dream of being a farmer, you might consider moving to a different country. Waiting for a collapse of American farmland prices might be a long wait.
There’s very little talk here about grain and produce (and milk) coops or wholesale operations. Traders and commodity speculators. The movement of farm products from the farm to the eventual user is mind boggling.
My first job involved farming. I grew up in a feed mill and chicken and hog farm. I was lucky enough to be in a USDA sponsored trip that went to a lot of farms. I still remember the one in Mankato, MN.
My wife is from the South where farming was everything. None of us and our kids are into farming. I don’t think it would pay enough.
We have barely scratched the surface here. But I doubt young people will really want to make a living out of farming (as we know it). I don’t mean to trample anyone’s dreams. But I think we have moved to a service economy a long time ago. Unless you are inheriting the family farm after estate taxes have been paid, you probably have another choice.
Do something niche, like a goat dairy that produces boutique cheeses.
Art, you mean maybe growing weed?
Nope, I meant it literally. I family who have been doing it since the ’80s successfully.
Everyone wants to grow weed. There’s better money in boutique cheese etc.
You could apply this article to independent family dentists and it pretty much every point would still apply. Almost impossible to save enough to open one’s own shop, absent outside money, so most just become cogs in the dental chains.
“I work as a contract software engineer for a living.”
Don’t worry! MIT and Silicon V. are already working on robot farmer…
Have you considered getting into farming through the back door?
Marry a farm girl.
Seriously though, I am a 52 year old full time farmer, working 1100-1200 acres. The window to get into a commodity farming operation has all but closed. However if you are willing to think out of the box there are opportunities to make some serious money on a few acres if you are in the right location. On just a few acres you can have your own farm market, veggies, pumpkins, strawberries etc. Don’t get caught up in the whole hemp thing, that is just a weed-heads pipe dream. If there was such a demand for hemp, we would have been importing it years ago.
Good luck with your dream! It’s hard to beat the farming lifestyle.
I am a new farmer in British Columbia. I am 52. My wife spent 4.5M of her inheritance to aquire a farm. There is no day I do not think of a thousand other ways to spend the rest of my days on this planet. I sincerely suggest you spend some time (at least 4 entire seasons) on a producing farm before getting involved. Liking food does not necessarily translate into owning a restaurant. Just saying.
A great big thank you to the poster (with whom I share a lot in terms of background and a burning desire to farm) and to Wolf – for posting material of this nature.
Wonderful to look beyond the daily grind and gyrations of the market and think about what we really want to get out of life.
That’s what it’s all about.
I wish the author good luck, and myself too, in the endeavor. The rest – we have to make it happen.
Farmed for ten years growing Xmas trees, cabbage, pumpkins, and micro greens. I wholesaled some but mostly retailed direct to customer or restaurants or farmer market. Helps to be near a metro area but that’s tough to do.
It’s extremely difficult and hard work. You need to know a lot about marketing in order to make money but if you can tell the story of your farm, you won’t lack for customers.
Thank you, Wolf for having Adam give his thoughts on farming. Like many who have commented, I grew up on a dairy and crops farm in the 1950’s and 60’s in Kansas but did not return to the farm for several reasons. First was health and the other was having an older brother going back to the farm. However, I have been involved in most every stage of agriculture in my lifetime. I have learned many life lessons from having grown up owning my own dairy cows and hogs, and planting and harvesting crops. The work ethic is one of the biggest things I have learned growing up on a farm. Those animals still had to be taken care of every day of the year. The other was being responsible to keep accurate records. My dad would not pay me for the milk my cows gave until I had calculated and subtracted my feed and other costs from the sales proceeds. My brother and I also worked for several neighbors to help buy pigs with cash. Sometimes this meant getting done with our own farm chores at 7 pm, grab a bite to eat, then off to the neighbors to plow with a 930 Case until midnight or until we broke a shear pin on the plow. Then repeat the process the next day. Dad grew up in a family of 12 during the Depression. My grandmother would tell stories of having a large garden for that big of family. She would then say that men out of work during the 30’s would walk 7-8 miles out to our farm to hoe the large garden in exchange for food to put on their families table. These are the memories that can shape our lives for the good.
I would like to comment on several items posted. Silly Me “First, GMO “farming” with seeds that contaminate nearby crops, rendering the seeds infertile, forcing farmers to buy GMO every year”. First you need to know the difference between seed varieties and seed hybrids. The creation of hybrid seeds was one of the most important discoveries in the history of farming because of huge increases in productivity back in the 1930’s but never really took hold until later in the 60’s. However, you could not plant back seeds grown from corn hybrids like you used to do from corn varieties. Yes, you had to buy hybrid corn seed every year, but the genetics also improved every year. Second, GMO stands for genetically modified organism. The genetics modified in corn has reduced the need to spray toxic chemicals because the corn plant has been built internally to withstand many diseases and insects. I hope you are not opposed to regenerative medicine and the research coming from stem cell therapy either, because it’s the same concept.
Another comment posted by Andrew, “Russia is competing hard in the grain market landing wheat in the Med at half the price the USA can.” Andrew, I work in the wheat export market, and you probably need to look at your geography a little closer. The largest wheat importers are Egypt, and Mid-East, N African countries. Ocean freight from the US to Egypt is $32-$32.25/MT while Black Sea to Egypt was $16-$19/MT. And Russia is not half the price of US wheat even though we are still $0.40/bu higher than Black Sea wheat. Our cash price to the producer is very cheap at around $3.40/bu.
I could go on about many misconceptions on modern agriculture today. It is a tough, competitive world wide market. Maybe when we start to develop shortages in our food supply instead of over-production taking place today, the market will be able to reward the agricultural producer better. Maybe hungry stomachs will change many attitudes.