Mike Turner always knew he was going to be a farmer.
He learned to drive a tractor at age five — joined at the hip of his grandfather and father on the family farm.
“I’ve been doing it a long time,” Turner said. “I’m 31 now.”
He’s the fourth generation on the farm. Turner recalls riding on the fender of a tractor with his grandfather, cutting hay. The farming life is all he’s ever known.
“I like working with equipment,” Turner said. “I’m a natural with technology. And I love tractors. One of my big hobbies is tractor pulls.”
He also loves the freedom of working outdoors and being his own boss.
The world is changing for farmers. As more grow older, there aren’t enough young ones to take their place.
Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms over the last year, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. There were 8,801 dairy herds licensed in Wisconsin as of January, 2018. The number of dairies in the state has fallen more than 20 percent in the last five years, the numbers show. The Badger state no longer produces the most milk. In the 1990s, California surpassed Wisconsin in milk production. Wisconsin remains the top producer of cheese.
In addition, the average age of the typical farmer has risen: Farmers over age 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one, and nearly two-thirds of U.S. farmland is set to transition to new ownership within the next 20 years, according to a survey conducted by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition.
Budget cutbacks and staff shortages at USDA offices aren’t helping matters, either.
It’s taken a long time for Turner to get to where he is now. Like many other younger generation farmers are experiencing, he found it extremely difficult to find a lender willing to work with him.
“The lender my parents had worked with for a long time, and who I worked with a bit growing up, didn’t even want to talk to me about buying the farm,” Turner said. “I talked with three or four banks before finding someone who was willing to sit down and talk numbers with me. The others didn’t even want to give me the time of day.”
That’s because lenders are primarily interested in how likely it is they’ll get their money back. The burden of proof lay on the shoulders of the individual to demonstrate they are a good risk. But with the USDA’s Economic Research Service reporting small farms, like all small businesses, have a relatively high exit rate of 9 – 10 percent per year, many farmers don’t have the numbers to back them.
“The biggest challenge is the mass amount of capital needed to get started in agriculture,” said Tommy Allen, who farms in the Reedsburg area. “The margins are really tight right now. Because of that you need to either specialize in something or be large scale. To make a profit, you have to be extremely efficient.”
Allen’s family went the route of specializing.
“We do a lot with genetics,” Allen said. “My family is well known for registered cattle. Basically we are making bulls to sell to bull studs for breeding. We’re creating feedstock.”
Even with specializing, Allen has had to be creative to make things work.
“I still work on the family farm,” Allen said. “I own animals and the feed is part of my wages. My house is part of the wages I receive, too. I don’t get a regular paycheck. It’s more of a barter situation.”
That situation allows Allen to own his own stock without the huge investment of land.
Getting a start
Although Portage resident Zach Krebs always farmed, he didn’t start farming on his own until 2013. He graduated from high school in 2008. His father, Dave Krebs, sold off much of his farm in 2006 because Zach and his siblings were into sports and it became too much for the elder Krebs to do on his own. However, Dave Krebs got into pig farming, and Zach often helped.
“I always wanted to farm,” Zach Krebs said. “I grew up with everything; dairy and beef cows and pigs. I’ve done it all. And I worked on the neighbor’s farm for a while and went to college.”
He lives on a four-and-a-half acre farmette and farms about 450 acres on other landowner’s property.
“I think right now I have a good base of landowners I work with,” he said. “Seventy-five percent I have been working with since 2013. Many landowners are just out for the money, so I try to sign three to five year contracts. But the people I work with now at least give me the first shot (of the land).”
Krebs decided to get into cash cropping corn and soybeans because of the huge investment purchasing livestock.
“Getting into farming is not cheap,” Krebs said. “If you buy a tractor, you have to have collateral to finance. So finding a good lender who knows the business is important.”
Krebs’ most recent seed corn bill was $60,000. He spends roughly $30,000 in herbicides and insect repellants. Fertilizer costs him an average of $70,000.
“I just bought an ’89 John Deere 4650 tractor at auction with 6,000 hours on it,” Krebs said. I paid $27,000 for it. I thought it was a good deal.”
Krebs said he’s thankful his wife, Cassie, understands what it takes to run a farm, including the large purchases.
“There are a lot of moving parts so it can be stressful,” Krebs said. “You have to sometimes improvise when you are a one-man show.”
The other night, the Krebs ate supper in the tractor. Due to the late Spring, crop farmers like the Krebs have only a short window to get their crops in. Cassie also grew up a farm. Her family raised beef.
“Ideally, she wishes she worked with me,” Krebs said. “But right now she works off the family farm for our health benefits and a 401K. We try to have it where her income pays for the house and bills, and the farm covers the farm.”
Allen’s wife is in the same situation. “It’s pretty common for one spouse to work outside the farm,” Allen said. “It also provides regular cash flow. Anytime you are in agriculture, you might run the risk of going a while without an income. So her income provides us with a steady flow to cover monthly expenses.”
Finding a fix
A new survey of young people starting in agriculture by the National Young Farmers Coalition showed challenges like paying off student loans, getting access to farm land, finding skilled laborers to hire, figuring out health care coverage as a self-employed person in a dangerous profession and how to make a living right away.
Wendy Kannel, director of training and leadership with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, acknowledged farming is going through a challenging time.
“It is very difficult right now,” Kannel said. “When you get talking about how the weather has been and the low prices, it can really get (farmers) down.”
The challenges have been enough to catch the attention of federal, state and local legislatures, with a campaign by the National Young Farmers Coalition that could potentially absolve farmers of student loan debt. A survey conducted by the coalition found the average member carries $35,000 in student loan debt. In addition, it reports the majority require off-farm income in order to make student loan payments. Nearly 30 percent also chose not to pursue farming because of that.
If signed into law, the bill would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, a U.S. Department of Education program that forgives the balance of student loans for graduates who work in public service careers, such as doctors, nurses, attorneys, teachers and government and non-profit employees.
Given recent cuts to USDA offices, those in the agriculture industry say it isn’t likely.
However, congress is creating another piece of federal legislation that could help with a beginning farmer student loan program.
The Farm Bill also looks at reducing regulatory burdens on USDA customers, increasing the effectiveness of tools and resources to attract and retain a USDA workforce, developing workforce policy to ensure farmers have access to legal and stable work, as well as increasing opportunities for new, veteran and underrepresented producers.
Kannel said the Wisconsin Farm Bureau is doing what it can to invest in and support the farmers of today and future generations.
“The Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Agriculturist program offers leadership development experiences for farmers ages 18 to 35,” she said. “One of the biggest examples of that is the Young Farmer Conference.”
Held in Wisconsin Dells in December, 2017, the three-day event brings its 500 members together for time to network, listen to speakers and attend workshops on a variety of issues related to ag business to production. The bureau also provides assistance in farm transitioning. And for those who don’t have a farm to transition to, Kannel said the Farm Service Agency is a good resource, and the USDA is one of several agencies that offers grants and loans to those who are having difficulty obtaining a loan from a commercial lender.
The next generation
More than ever, agricultural education is playing an important role in shaping the U.S.’s next crop of farmers. Future Farmers of America has reported a steady growth over the past two decades, with 653,000 members nationally, according to Kristy Meyer, communications manager for the National FFA. The National FFA serves as the governing body to local chapters.
“We’ve noticed an increase in our overall numbers and our number of chapters has increased as well,” Meyer said. “We attribute that to agriculture as a whole. A lot more people are showing an interest in the industry. It’s not just about food, but also fiber and fuel.”
Meyer said they are seeing an increase in agricultural education, likely due to the group’s promotion and marketing of the more than 250 unique careers in the field such as food science, animal husbandry, aquaponics, wildlife management and veterinary science.
Troy Talford, agriculture and natural resources instructor for Sauk Prairie High School and middle school, said it is difficult for his students to think about having a production career in agriculture with the current state of commodity prices. “It’s a scary venture,” Talford said. “And it’s a huge investment. When you think about how long it will take to pay things off, from a farming perspective.”
Still, it’s Talford’s role as the district’s FFA advisor to help educate his students, regardless of their interest level.
“I am seeing fewer students coming from family farms,” Talford said. “And there’s definitely been more interest in ag careers outside of working on the family farm.”
One area of growth Talford is seeing is an interest in agronomy.
“Many are working with seed companies or doing soil testing, looking for diseases and pests in the fields and crop trials,” Talford said. “That’s really been on the rise. So have the soil sciences. It’s the nature of the beast. We have fewer kids growing up on farms but we still have to have to support those farms.”
Talford said the days of one farm supporting several families for a year are relatively gone. “It’s definitely a shift,” he said. “Yes, there are fewer farms, but farms are bigger now, and bigger farms need different supports. It used to be 50 years ago a farmer might have been more involved in animal nutrition or soil sampling. Now due to the farm’s size, they are relying on other people to do that.”
Beth Babcock, agriculture education teacher and FFA advisor for the Mauston School District, said new technology and new practices require a different way of doing things.
“There are a huge number of opportunities out there,” Babcock said. “Today you can be involved in agriculture at so many different levels. If a kid thinks it isn’t worth going back to the family farm, they can still do something in the ag field.”
Babcock said she isn’t too worried about the future of farming. After all, she said, people have to eat.
“There are changes; farms are growing bigger and there are less people doing it,” she said. “But technology is also better and we are finding more efficient and economical ways to produce.”
Anita Nelson, who along with her husband, Don has farmed in Wisconsin Dells for nearly six decades, is worried, though, and said the family farm structure is being threatened.
“I think a family should be able to make a living on a 200-300 cow farm,” she said. “But now you need thousands. We have more factory farms.”
Throughout the years the Nelsons have been mentoring younger farmers from all over the world, helping them get hands-on experience in technical and mechanical training and land and animal management.
“Some learn our milking system and some help till the soil,” Nelson said. “Others have even helped me with my other venture, a bed and breakfast.”
Thunder Valley Inn is a six-bedroom bed and breakfast in a 150-year-old farmhouse, with a small cottage — originally a milk house. It pairs old-fashioned Scandinavian hospitality and entertainment with a farm experience wrapped into it. In other words, Nelson is capitalizing on agritourism.
The inn’s restaurant was a former machine shed. All together Thunder Valley can accommodate up to 30 guests, and children are highly encouraged.
Nelson also welcomes 4H clubs and schoolchildren who get a first-hand look at how and where food is produced.
She said it’s her way of ensuring the next generation knows about farming and the state’s legacy.
“Wisconsin is such a beautiful state,” Nelson said. “But we are losing too many farms. This is our fabric. If we lose that, we lose our heritage.”