Students face challenges to dream of becoming farmers

Michelle Kann

For Brent Swart and his older brother, the dream started with their first toy tractor.

When the boys were too young to drive tractors, they would play farm in the house. They set up small fences to divide the carpet into fields of corn and soybeans in their miniature farming world.

“It was just like our dad’s farm,” Swart said.

At one time in his life, Swart thought he would return to the family farm. But now, as a senior in agronomy, his farming dream is far from reality.

“It disappoints me, because I think my brother and I farming together would make a really good fit,” Swart said. “He’s really good with the equipment and mechanics, and I’m better with the agronomy and technical stuff.”

Swart is not the only young farmer having those feelings.

The aging Iowa farm population is looking for a new, younger generation of farmers. But agricultural students graduating are looking for other less risky options.

In today’s economy, there seems to be more factors against the beginning farmer than in favor. College graduates hoping to return to the farm face a sluggish agricultural economy, capital and risk challenges and dealing with parents who are not ready to retire.

With all these weighing factors, many agriculture majors who come to college with the intention of returning to the family farm are looking for agribusiness positions four years later.

The change in career choices can happen for several reasons.

After one year in engineering, Swart switched his major to agronomy with the intention of returning to his parents’ farm. After much debate, Swart thinks his parents’ 2,000-acre corn and soybean farm near Dickens may not be the best place for him right now.

“With my dad still farming and my brother beginning to farm on his own, the amount of acres we have is not enough to support three people or three families,” Swart said.

Helen Olson, academic adviser in agricultural education and studies, said Swart’s story is a familiar one.

“When a student becomes a graduating senior, they realize the opportunity isn’t there,” she said.

Economic conditions played a factor in Adam Harder’s decision to look for an agribusiness job. His parents farm a 700-acre corn and soybean farm with 100 sows a few miles outside of Walnut.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional football player and a farmer,” said Harder, senior in agronomy. “But my parents really discouraged it. It’s too difficult. They want us to be financially secure.”

Harder said his parents worry that low commodity prices would continue into the years when he became a producer.

Swart said his parents feel the same way.

“I mean, they like farming and stuff,” Swart said, hesitating. “But with the crunch of the economic situation, they’re not opposed to me getting a job. They want to see me do well. But they know it’s really hard to be farming right now.”

Ryan Bristle, senior in agricultural studies, said the economy was a factor in his decision to search the open job market instead of returning to farming.

“Farming is not as profitable as it has been,” he said. “It’s in a slump right now.”

Bristle pointed out uncertainty can happen any time a college graduate heads out to the job market.

“The economy as a whole is kind of poor right now,” he said. “The job outlook isn’t looking as great as it has been.”

Harder said the problem is much bigger than the flexibility of the market.

“It’s not that farming can’t be profitable,” he said. “But it’s really tough to acquire land. Landlords are increasing cash rents and demanding more and more for land. There are too many detached landlords who don’t care how well their land is taken care of. They just want to go to the coffee shop and brag to their friends about the high prices they got.”

Kelli Bormann, senior in animal science, said getting started in farming is more of a challenge than most 20-somethings want to face.

“It’s almost impossible to get started from scratch,” said Bormann, president of the ISU Farm Operations Club. “You would need to buy land, buildings, machinery, equipment.”

Paul Lasley, professor of agricultural sociology, said the costs of machinery and land rent can hurt many young farmers.

“The biggest difficulty is the level of capital needed to get started,” he said.

The appeal comes to join Mom and Dad on the farm where the capital is already established, but most farming parents are not ready for that transition when their child graduates from college.

“If the typical college graduate is 22 years old, and their parents are around 40 years old, it may be 10 to 20 years before the parents are ready to retire,” Lasley said. “And it’s very realistic that they might be farming with their parents for around 20 years.”

Most farmers stay involved with farming until a later age. According to the 1997 U.S. Census, 40 percent of Iowa farmers are over the age of 55, and retirement may be the farthest thing from their minds.

“Entry is a progress, not an event,” Lasley said. “The young farmer is gradually entering as the old farmer is gradually exiting. We’re talking about several years.”

That’s the exact situation one ISU student is experiencing.

Dustin Gleason, senior in agricultural studies, is returning to his family farm at graduation in December. He is planning to become a partner in the family’s farming business as his grandfather retires.

“I’m halfway stepping in and [my grandfather] is halfway stepping out,” Gleason said. “It’s a good transition.”

He said he is positive about joining the family’s 1,500-acre farm.

“A lot of people have tried to make me nervous, but it makes me excited,” Gleason said. “A lot of my friends in the College of Ag want to come back, but their parents won’t let them. Not everyone has this opportunity.”

Even though young farmers are not returning to farming now doesn’t mean they won’t at a later time.

Harder said he knows his future in agriculture most likely won’t be on his parents’ farm. But he is hopeful that by working in the industry, he might be able to help the situation and get other young farmers started.

“A lot of things aren’t great about agriculture now,” he said. “But there’s a future in agriculture. I want to be a part of a revolution. I want agriculture to survive and be a success that can be passed down to the generations below us.”