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Jonathan Knutson, Published November 11 2010

North Dakota farmers show an aging work force

NIAGARA, N.D. — By Nelson County standards, Niagara farmer Mike Kelly is still a young buck.

By regional and national standards, he's neither young nor old.

He's 56.

"Yeah, there are a lot of farmers my age and older," he says with a wry smile.

Indeed there are.

The average age of Nelson County farmers is 61.4, according to the U.S. Department's 2007 Census of Agriculture, which was released in early 2009.

That's the highest average age for farmers in any county in the region. It's also a hefty increase from Nelson County farmers' average age of 59 in 2002.

What's happening in Nelson County holds true, to a slightly smaller degree, across the country and region.

America's farmers and ranchers — already old in comparison with the overall U.S. labor force — are aging at a worrisome rate.

The estimated average age of the American labor force in general is about 41. In contrast, the average age of U.S. farmers in 2007 was 57.1, up from 55.3 in 2002.

So on average, an American farmer is about 16 years older than an American worker in general.Keep in mind that the 2007 census may be a bit outdated, at least regionally.

Area farmers generally enjoyed good profits the past few years, which has encouraged some young adults to begin farming since the census was conducted, says Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.

"My sense is that there's been an uptick," he says. "I guess we'll find out when the next census is conducted" in 2012.

Whatever the next census shows, there's widespread agreement that a new generation of farmers needs to step up to replace today's aging producers.

Judging by the 2007 census, that's not happening. Nationwide, the number of farmers 75 and older rose 20 percent from 2002 to 2007, while the number of farmers 25 and younger fell 30 percent in the same period.

Blame the dearth of young farmers on the high cost of land and other must-have components of agriculture. By all accounts, young farmers struggle mightily to get started — and then stay in business — without help from an older, established producer.

"Unless you have the land (provided by a family member who ranches or farms), it's virtually impossible to get started," says Kim Baker, a Hot Spring, Mont., rancher and president of the Montana Cattlemen's Association. Land is increasingly expensive throughout the region. Because the past few years have been profitable, farmers have had more money to spend, helping to push up land prices. Ironically, the increased profitability that attracts the interest of would-be farmers also makes it harder for them to get land.

"It's a Catch-22," says Andy Swenson, North Dakota State University Extension Service farm management specialist in Fargo.

He and others say there's no question that land now farmed by older operators will continue to be tilled after they retire. Existing farmers will pick up the land and enlarge their operations.

The issue is whether young, would-be farmers have a realistic chance of renting or buying that increasingly costly land.

For instance, land in Nelson County rented in 2010 for an average of $42 per acre, with the average value of the rented land at $737 per acre, according to the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service.

From 2005 to '09, land in the county rented for an average of $35.10, with the average value of the rented land standing at $512.

Farms in Nelson County average 845 acres. At 2010 prices, a farmer in the county would pay $35,490 annually to rent 845 acres and about $623,000 to buy 845 acres.

Young people face challenges in starting a business in most industries, says Richard Britton, a 66-year-old Turtle Lake farmer who farms with his son, Rick, 38, in North Dakota's McLean County.

But high land prices create a particularly high hurdle in ag, Richard Britton says.

"It's just not an easy thing to get into," he says.

With so few young farmers getting started, he says, "You look around and see farmers you think of as young — and they're in their 40s," he says.

"There are just so many of us in our 60s now," he says.

For Britton and many other older farmers, the issue isn't only about money.

Most farms in the region have been in the same family for generations, and older producers often have a keen, even passionate desire to pass on the farm to a younger family member.

For decades, the trend in agriculture has been bigger farms.

That was reflected in the 2007 Census of Agriculture. In North Dakota, the number of farms with 1,000 to 5,000 acres fell, while the number of farm with more than 5,000 acres rose by 20 percent.

Frank James, director of Dakota Rural Action in Brookings, S.D., sees an alternative, one he says can exist "along side" big, traditional farms and one that can encourage more young farmers to get started.

He advocates finding and promoting methods by which young producers can support themselves on relatively small farms. One example is the use of high tunnels, or unheated greenhouses that extend the growing season and allow farmers to increase production.

"We've got to go beyond the status quo," he says, referring to the trend of bigger farms.

He also wants government to increase funding for programs designed to help young farmers get started.

Increased funding would bring more young families to rural areas, revitalizing small towns and schools, he says.

A number of federal and state programs are available to help beginning farmers.

Young, would-be farmers should consider livestock as a way to enter agriculture, says Kevin Paap, a Garden City, Minn., farmer and president of the state Farm Bureau.

"One of the advantages of being young is that you have more energy, and adding value to livestock" can allow young people to benefit from that, he says.

Paap, like others in agriculture, wonders what will happen when aging farmers, who have no younger relatives to succeed them, eventually quit.

Will the land be farmed by a new generation of young producers? Or will it go to existing farmers who use the land to enlarge their operations?

"That's something I have concerns about. We want opportunities for young people to get started," he says.

Farmers and farm groups sometimes differ over which policies and programs best promote those opportunities. But just about everybody in agriculture seems to agree on this:

There's no shortage of young people willing, even eager to farm — but only if agriculture provides the consistent profitability they need to earn a decent living.

"This is a great way of life that's attractive to many (young) people. There just has to be the profitability to keep them on the farm or ranch," says Baker, the Montana rancher.

Keep farmers' rising average age in perspective.

—Farmers aren't the only ones getting older. The average age of American workers in general is rising, from about 35 in 1980 to about 41 years today. That reflects aging baby boomers, or the roughly 75 million people between born 1946 and 1964.

—The Census of Ag numbers are for "principal operators," or the person responsible for day-to-day decisions on a farm or ranch. Some older farmers identified as principal operators have help from younger family members who are involved in the farm or operate their own farm.

—Farming continues to become more mechanized. With less physical effort required, age become less of a factor.

—Some farmers remain active until they die or become physically incapable of farming.

As life spans lengthen — Americans on average lived 14.3 years after reaching age 65 in 1960 and 18.5 years after reaching age 65 in 2006, according to U.S. government figures — farmers potentially can stay active longer, pushing up their average age.

"A lot of older farmers keep going because they want to and are able to, not because they have to," Kelly says.

Kelly's father, Roscoe, stayed active in farming until he died in 2006 at age 86.

Like most area farmers, Mike Kelly got started by working with his father.

"I worked for him and in partnership with him starting when I was 18. He phased me in," Mike Kelly says. None of Kelly's four children, who either are in college or have established careers, seem likely to become farmers.

"It doesn't look good for anybody coming back at this juncture," he says.

Kelly, who raises wheat, dry edible beans, soybeans and cattle, plans to continue farming for the foreseeable future.

"I'm going to keep going for a while yet. Though I don't think I'll be like my father," he says. And when he retires, what will happen to the farm in which he's been involved since childhood and which has been in family since 1894?

Kelly, who lost his wife to cancer in 2007, 11 months after his father died, says he's thought a lot the past few years about the future of his farm.

He pauses, searching for the right words, and finally says: "Well, I'd really like to see a young farmer take things over. But I just don't know if that's going to happen. It's a super challenge today for young people to get started in farming."

Information from: Grand Forks Agweek, http://www.grandforks.com/mld/agweek/

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.