Well, we did it. We sent our oldest daughter Harper off to college, five and a half hours away. Every parent I’ve talked to about this momentous occasion has given me the “look”—a facial expression that says it all: that this is probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Sure, it’s a little scary and new for the teenager excited to go out into the big, wide world. But everyone seems to acknowledge that it’s hardest for Mom. They couldn’t be more right!
I’ve been crying off and on about this big change since December, when Harper was filling out her college applications in earnest. I got all misty whilst ordering her high school graduation party invitations. I cried through the first half of her graduation ceremony and on the sheets and towels we picked out for her dorm room. I now tear up when any mother/daughter duo shows up on a TV commercial. I’m officially a mess!
When the opportunity to adopt a puppy came up in the spring, I didn’t hesitate. (I’m finding this is a pattern for other parents as well. I’m glad to learn I’m not alone!) I’m also throwing myself into my work. Keeping busy is always a good distraction.
I’m excited for my daughter, of course. Both my husband and I went to college and, knowing our daughter’s love of learning, we know she is going to flourish.
Many folks have asked if Harper was going to study agriculture or food science. As a farm kid, I’m sure it’s quite normal for folks to think she may want to follow in her parents’ footsteps and take over the business someday.
But there’s the rub. Fewer and fewer farm kids want to stay on the family farm. The effects of this trend are quite evident: the average age of a farmer in the US is 58. Of “beginning” farmers (those that have been farming ten years or less), the average age is 46. And fewer than a third of family farms in this nation have a designated successor.
There are lots of reasons for all this, of course. For one, farming is hard. Long hours plus often monotonous manual labor at poverty wages is a pretty accurate job description. And for many, farming is not economically viable and therefore unsustainable. Low prices for farm goods compounded by high prices for inputs means less money in the farmer’s pocket. On average, farmers and ranchers receive about 15₵ of every dollar spent on food, compared to 31₵ in 1980. In other words, of the $100 you spent on groceries this week, $15 went to the farmers that grew it.
A farm kid’s decision to stay may also be affected by the size of the family operation. Earlier this year, a shocking statistic was released by the USDA that the median income for the 2 million farms in the US was -$1,548—the lowest reported in nearly 10 years. While this sounds shocking, it helps to unpack what that statistic means.
Of the 2 million farms in the US, fully half are considered residential, where the proprietors are “hobby farms,” retired, or otherwise earn a primary income off of the farm. On average, this group reports losing as much as $100,000 per annum.
The next group, or 38% of the total, is considered intermediate farm operations. Our farm fits squarely in this group, where on-farm sales total less than $350,000 a year. This group fairs slightly better than the overall median at $8,000/year net income. How many families can sustain themselves on $8,000 a year, you ask? The answer is: they can’t. Most families in this size bracket work an off-farm job to supplement their operations.
The final group, or commercial farms, average over $200,000/year in net income. If you’ve been doing your math, this last group accounts for 12% of all farms in the US. And although a positive net income of this magnitude sounds healthy, this group has problems of its own. While farm debt across all groups has ratcheted up over the last five years, this group specifically is servicing almost 40% more debt.
It is also worth noting that of the 2 million farms in the US, 98% are family owned and operated. The remaining 2% are conglomerates and vertically integrated companies owned by multiple investors or private equity groups.
So, this is the landscape farm kids are facing when it comes to taking over the family farm. The reality is far less romantic when you think in these terms, isn’t it?
For the kids that want to take over despite the challenges, few of those families actually have a plan in place. Talking about farm succession is a difficult subject, fraught with all the familial pitfalls and drama that you might expect in any family. Many will seek outside legal counsel to wade through it all, while still keeping the family intact.
Harper does not plan to study agriculture in school. In fact, she currently has no interest in taking over the family farm and I fully support her choice. Between the physical, emotional, and economic challenges, farming is for those whose heart is truly in it.
Our youngest daughter, Margaret, will be filling her sister’s shoes in more ways than one. We will have the pleasure of her company for the next five years, when I fully expect to be going through all this again…unless she wants to stay.