The face of agriculture is changing.
While the stereotype of the older Anglo-Saxon male toiling in the fields is still the norm, a new wave of farm operators is emerging where women and those of different ethnicities are taking the controls of the combine and their livelihoods in greater numbers.
Just as the face of agriculture is changing, so is its identity. The traditional "family farm" of rural lore is dwindling in numbers squeezed at one end by large, corporate farms and at the other end by small, specialty "gardens."
Whitney Pandil-Eaton/MDN --
Louis Kuster combines his durum wheat field outside of Stanley last fall.
Last month's release of the 2007 Census of Agriculture shows these trends and more, giving insight to government officials and the public about the intricate world of the ag industry.
Conducted every five years by the National Agriculture Statistic Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the census covers every aspect of agriculture from the physical size of farms and the products produced on them to the economics of farm expenditures, the market value of products and government payments to the demographics of who owns and operates the land as well as dozens of other categories that are evaluated on the local, state and national level.
Three of the biggest trends highlighted by the 2007 Ag Census include the increasing number of women as primary operators, the polarization of farm sizes and the increasing age of the nation's farmers.
North Dakota Facts
Number of farms: 31,970, an increase of 4 percent from 2002. Of those, one-third had less than $1,000 in sales while another third had sales of more than $100,000.
Average size of farm: 1,241 acres, down 3 percent from 2002.
Market value of production: $6 billion in 2007, an increase of 88 percent from the $3.2 billion in 2002. Crops accounted for 83 percent while livestock accounted for 17 percent of total production.
Average per farm: $190,310, up 80 percent from 2002.
State ranks: No. 1 in acres devoted to barley for grain in U.S. and ranks No. 2 nationally for number of bee colonies and acres of (all) wheat for grain.
Government payments: $359.5 million, 23 percent increase from 2002.
Average of farm: $13,462, a 10 percent increase from 2002.
Operators: 45,114; 33,551 males; 11,281 females. (number reflects all operators on farm)
Average age: 56.5 years
Source: 2007 Census of Agriculture
U.S. Agriculture Facts
Number of farms: 2.2 million, 4 percent increase from 2002.
Average size of farm: 418 acres
Market value of production: $297 billion
Average per farm: $135,000
Government payments: $8 billion in payments and $10 billion in farm-related income
Average payment: $9,500 per farm
Operators: 3.3 million; 2.3 million males; 1 million females (number reflects all operators on farm)
Average age: 57
Source: 2007 Census of Agriculture
Age of farmers
The average age of the U.S. farm operator increased from 55.3 in 2002 to 57.1 in 2007. During that same time period, the number of operators 75 years and older grew by 20 percent while the number of operators under 25 years of age dropped by 30 percent.
Although there are numerous reasons why young people aren't entering the fields, Steve Zimmerman, an ag educator who works at the state Capitol, said the biggest reason is because they cannot afford the financial risk of starting up. Between the cost of land, equipment, facilities and production, it can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to start an operation a sum not many can afford.
"Many young people have tried, but weren't able to make it work," Zimmerman said. "Farms, like big business, can't be measured with one year of income, but over a long period."
Availability is also a problem.
"It's difficult to find land right now," said Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. "Although most farmers rent land to begin with, the high price of land has discouraged young people from attempting so most of the young people involved in agriculture already have someone in the business."
The fluctuations of the commodity market is also a concern.
"The best thing to bring in new farmers is to have profitable ag, which we had many good years of, but now we are more in a break-even or losing-money phase which doesn't entice people to come in," Carlson said.
Those difficulties facing current farmers are absorbed by their children.
"Kids growing up see the struggles of their parents to keep the operation afloat and at the same time see their friends' families in town doing well so there's less interest because it's easier to make money in the city," said Tim Semler, Extension Agent for Bottineau County.
And with no relative to continue, many older operators are forced to hold onto their operations longer. As a result, a new arrangement has emerged, but it comes with risk.
"There's a new trend happening in which ownership of the property is maintained by the older individual but is operated by the younger farmer," Zimmerman said. "But that type of arrangement can easily fall off if the owner dies."
But it's not all doom and gloom. With help of the North Dakota Legislature, the Bank of North Dakota and several other private organizations, Zimmerman said young people are finding that they have more opportunities with ag production than previously thought.
"With legislative support, organizations have been able to develop ag marketing clubs and localized marketing education programs that are providing students with the knowledge that they have options available to them," Zimmerman said, giving examples such as organic or specialty crop production.
He added that although programs like Adult Farm Management have seen steady attendance numbers, instructors' workloads are maxed out, resulting in a shift within ag education.
While there are still special loan programs through financial institutions and farm management programs through traditional educational avenues, Zimmerman said increasingly educational ag programs are operating within offices such as the North Dakota State University Research Extension offices located throughout the state.
"It's like one-stop shopping. A farmer can see his crop specialist, a farm management specialist and any other specialist he needs to run his operation," Zimmerman said.
Due in part to those efforts, Semler said, "we've started to see pockets of 20 and 30-year-olds around the state recently, so I'm encouraged, and I believe the trend is slowing."
"Young people in their 30s and 40s went off to the big city, saw the elephant and came back home," Zimmerman added. "They are realizing that the grass isn't always greener where there's more concrete."
The great divide
The largest increase in the number of farms by class occurred at both financial poles, squeezing out the middle. From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $1,000 increased by 118,000, while the number of farms with sales or more than $500,000 grew by 46,000.
"I see two trends happening simultaneously," Carlson said. "The first is that farms are getting larger to increase volume and efficiency so they can compete on the international marketing level. The second is a growth in smaller, more labor-intensive farms such as organic, free-range or specialty crop operations that cater to a particular consumer group." Indeed, Carlson noted that even during the recession the consumption of organic products has remained steady.
But there are other reasons why 60 percent of all U.S. farms now have less than $10,000 in sales, ranging from the financial to the nostalgic.
"When times get tough, people put in a home garden which could easily expand under the right conditions." Zimmerman said.
"More kids who grew up in rural areas now work in large cities, but they have the opportunity to have a small tract of land for some organic produce or a few animals, they take it," Semler said. "They want the rural life experience while still being near the bigger cities for work."
The problem with these diverging trends, Carlson said, is that it results in the decline of mid-level farmers which represent a majority of the Farmers Union membership. So where did the medium-sized farm go?
"It's a disturbing trend," Carlson said.
Although there are various reasons behind the disappearing act of medium-sized farms, one the largest has to do with rising input costs and narrowing margins. According to the 2007 Census, production expenses increased 39 percent from 2002 to 2007 with the steepest cost increases occurring with gasoline and fuel, up 93 percent, and fertilizer, up 86 percent, while income from sales increased 48 percent during the same time period.
Semler said $45,000 to $48,000 of net farm income is currently needed to provide for a family of four. Twenty years ago, he said farmers could expect $15 to $20 of net income per acre, so to provide for a family of four a farmer would need to farm 3,000 acres. Now, with higher input costs, Semler said, farmers can expect $5 to $10 per acre of net cash flow for that same 3,000 acres, which represents a 50 percent loss in net income.
Of the 2.2 million farms in the U.S., only 1 million have positive net cash income from the farming operation while the remaining 1.2 million farms depend on non-farm to cover farm expenses.
One of those expenses: health care.
"When you are self-employed, you cover 100 percent of your medical costs, which is at least $10,000 a year that is taken directly off the net income," Semler said. "Where do you come up with that?"
Many depend on the $8 billion in government payments and $10 billion in farm-related income they received in 2007, which now may be on the chopping block under the new government budget proposed by the Obama administration.
While women have always been involved in farm activites to varying degrees, the spike in the numbers and the magnitude to which female participation has increased over the last decade has drawn considerable attention from researchers and ag organizations.
From 1997 to 2002, the number of women involved in farming operations as a primary operator increased by more than 13 percent to nearly 240,000 women nationwide. In 2007, more than 300,000 females primary operators were counted, an increase of nearly 30 percent from 2002.
The reason behind the increase is two-fold.
Semler said the trend in the last 30 years in ag has been to larger farming operations. When that happens, management of the farm becomes a full-time job, so the spouse, traditionally a woman, takes over the business aspects of the operation.
As this trend increased, he said, the USDA made a conscious effort to include spouses as operators, whereas before the man traditionally would have been counted as the sole operator of the farm.
For many women, farm management came naturally.
"Farmers are tied into the farm it's part of their identity but women look at it more as a business of how much money they need to continue and feed their families, so they are less emotionally attached to the product and are more willing to pull the trigger in the market," said Ellen Linderman, a member of the board of directors for the NDFU who has farmed with her husband, Charles, in the Carrington area for more than 30 years.
Beyond managing, many North Dakota women have completely taken the reigns of a farm. In 2007, approximately 3,700 out of nearly 32,000 farms one in 10 had females as the primary operator.
"Women see an opportunity in ag, especially for smaller enterprises, that they didn't have before," Linderman said. "I know several women who produce personal gardens for their local farmers market and others who want foods grown closer to home because they are concerned for their family's food safety, which is fast becoming a security issue for the nation."
As the world becomes more globally connected and technology improves, aspects of agriculture will change, but one thing will always remain.
"People will always need to eat," Carlson said, "so there will always be a need for farmers to produce it."