In Indiana, the average farmer is 58 years old, though more young people are making their way into the industry. But unpredictable weather, changing crop prices, and large debts can challenge younger farmers to stay in business.
Young Farmers Face A Tough Agriculture Environment
You can find Jeff Bailey working on his farm in Bloomington at 4 a.m. most days of the week, out in the cold morning weather preparing his farm for the winter. But if you think waking up early to stand in the cold is the hardest part of being a farmer, you’d be wrong.
“At one point, when we were in big crop production, we were signing [loan] papers [for] almost $250,000 and they had to be paid back at the end of the year,” Bailey says. “So you’re taking your house and basically every piece of equipment you have and you’re putting it on the line that you’re going to make that debt right.”
Bailey calls himself a part-time farmer. He grows corn and soybeans with help from his wife and three kids.
He bought his small farm in 2003 to support his family. He also works as a full-time firefighter and part-time risk management first responder with Indiana University Recreational Sports.
“It’s a gamble, you know? To convince somebody at a young age to be willing to take the debt versus income and work at it because there’s a lot of countless late hours, sleepless hours you have to be willing to put in,” he says. “If you’re not positive, agriculture won’t work for you. You have to stay positive. You get knocked down, you wipe it off, you get back up and you smile.”
Indiana’s Agriculture Economy Needs More Young People
Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University Chris Hurt says Indiana needs more people like Bailey. Young people who work in agriculture are increasingly difficult to find due to hard times in recent years. Hurt says it isn’t just farm owners that are low in numbers, but the entire agriculture industry is facing a problem.
“We do need this constant supply of young people coming into ag production.”
“We do need this constant supply of young people coming into ag production,” he says. “Training people to service the farms, going into the agro-businesses and other service agencies, the fertilizer, the chemical industry, the seed industry, the marketing side of the products. So there’s demand for all of those job opportunities, somewhat smaller number going back to the farms.”
Prior to 2014, the agricultural economy was in a boom period, which was attractive to younger people looking to get into farming. But we’ve hit a period of moderation in the past two years meaning these new farmers might become discouraged because of the financial stress they face.
Doug Murray considers himself to be one of the lucky ones. He’s 27: a young farmer like Bailey. He’s part of that small minority that has gone back to the farm, like the generation before him. The friends he grew up with don’t have that.
“Not too many were fortunate enough to be able to come back to the farm so, a lot of my friends that I grew up with, baled hay with and worked with, they’re off in other places doing other things,” Murray says.
He grew up on his family’s farm in Pennville, a rural community north of Muncie. After graduating college, he was able to come back to work with his parents.
But it can be hard to guarantee the future of a farm these days. Hurt says many farms have seen losses in the last two years.
Last year, parts of northern Indiana experienced unexpected rains during the spring and summer. It hurt the farmers’ bottom lines.
“It can change while it’s two in the morning and you’re in bed at night,” Murray says. “You wake up in the morning, you went from going in the black to running in the red.”
Young Farmers Face Many Barriers, But Say It’s Worth The Risks
For Bailey, despite the overwhelming uncertainty and hardship he might face as a young farmer, he still knows the economy needs people like him in agriculture to take those risks and provide for the community.
“We want to share [the food] with our elders because they’re the ones that made this possible for us.”
Bailey built a greenhouse in the summer, and in the spring he’ll grow vegetables like sweet corn, green beans and tomatoes. It’s part of a new strategy he’s using that he says is an important component to a farmer’s success.
“We give a lot of our veggies to [the] elderly, because they don’t have the income to go out or enjoy the fresh food,” he says. “But we want to share with our elders because they’re the ones that made this possible for us.”
Bailey and Murray were both introduced to farming by their families, and they both credit them with their success. And if future generations choose to take the risk, and become farmers, that’s most likely going to happen through family as well, like Bailey’s 4-year-old son.
“As long as he’s showing the passion and wants to be out here involved with the farm, then we’re going to make sure he’s involved with the farm,” Bailey says.