WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — At 34 and 33, respectively, Luke and Linsey Schuldt aren’t exactly spring chickens. But when it comes to farming, the couple just hatched.
They’re young and inexperienced compared to most Iowa producers. Like newborns, the Schuldts rely on others for help and learn by doing.
“A lot of work with crops and livestock is trial and error,” said Luke Schuldt, whose been farming for seven years. “We’re trying. Thankfully, we have great neighbors to reach out to.
“I absolutely love it. I love the cattle in the creek and watching crops grow,” he continued. “I love everything about the farm life.”
What the young farmers lack in expertise and resources, they make up for in passion. And that, agriculture experts say, is a big reason why the troubling trend of farm consolidation and aging farmers appears to be slowing and possibly reversing.
And a robust farm economy certainly doesn’t hurt.
The average age of an Iowa farmer is 56, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. It has increased 18 percent in 20 years.
During the same time period, the number of farms statewide dwindled by more than 23 percent. There were 121,339 farms in 1978 and 92,856 in 2007, government data indicate.
The national trends are similar.
John Whitacker, executive director of the Iowa Farm Service Agency, summed up his concern using one word: stability.
“Age is always a social concern for any industry … just having the producers ready,” he said.
Raising enough food to feed the world’s burgeoning population is a concern. Plus, rural communities suffer as farm numbers decrease.
There is less money to support businesses in small towns and fewer children in classrooms. Towns that used to have grocery stores have none. School mergers are common.
Finding ways to stabilize farm numbers and encourage a new generation of producers is a priority, officials say.
There are indications it is happening:
“This tells me people believe in agriculture and want to continue family traditions,” Whitacker said.
Something to believe in
Luke Schuldt is a fifth-generation farmer. His ancestors established the family farm several miles east of Tripoli in 1878.
The Schuldts hope to give their children, 5-year-old Levi and 2 1/2-year-old Lara, a chance to be the sixth.
When his father quit farming in 1994, sold the equipment and moved the family to town, Schuldt’s dream of raising crops and livestock appeared dim. He didn’t give up.
“Some of my fondest memories as a kid was on the farm. I wanted that life for (my kids),” Schuldt said.
He graduated from Iowa State University in Ames in 2004 with degree in ag studies. A year later Luke and Linsey, who grew up on an acreage near Shell Rock, got married and moved to the 160-acre family farm owned by Schuldt’s grandmother.
Despite a mountain of challenges — high land and input costs, starting from scratch and competing with established farmers — the Schuldts slowly started to farm. They rented nine acres from grandma and purchased some machinery and a few cows.
The next year they took on 15 acres, then 30. They now rent all 160 acres, along with another 85 acres from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources near Sweet Marsh close to the farm. They own nine cows and custom-raise another seven. Heifers are retained to build the herd and males are eventually sold as fat cattle or butchered to sell beef directly to the public.
The Schuldts have off-farm, full-time jobs as well. Luke is a truck driver and Linsey is a pharmacist.
Though farming is a lot of work and free time is a rare commodity, the Schuldts say it is worth it.
“We’re trying to find that happy balance. Everyone has challenges,” Linsey said.
“There has to be another generation,” Luke added. “I’m the only farmer left in the family. I’m proud of that, but also disappointed.”
Good income potential has made is easier.
Excitement about production agriculture among 20- and 30-somethings appears to be growing during what industry officials call another golden age in agriculture.
Fueled by the ethanol boom that started in 2004, corn and soybean prices soared to unprecedented levels. Corn neared $8 per bushel in June 2011 and soybeans hit $16 per bushel in July 2008.
Cattle and pork prices have increased dramatically as well.
Farm income skyrocketed in recent years. Though grain and livestock prices are still strong, higher input costs slightly reduced profit projections this year.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, national net cash farm income this year is forecast at $96.3 billion. That’s down 11.5 percent from 2011 — the third-highest level in the past 50 years when adjusted for inflation — but $15.9 billion above the 10-year average.
Net cash income was $92.3 billion in 2010, up 24.2 percent compared to 2009.
As a result, the popularity of FFA — formerly known as Future Farmers of America — in area high schools has never been higher, school officials say. There is record enrollment in ag programs at Iowa colleges as well.
“The ag economy has contributed to that. There’s no way I can overstate that $6 to $7 corn makes ag more attractive,” said Tom Polito, director of student services at ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
In the fall of 2011, there were 3,584 ag students at ISU. That is up 46 percent since 2005.
Despite a 98 percent placement rate in ag businesses — with average starting salaries ranging from $30,000 to $50,000 a year — -ISU officials said 10 to 15 percent of ag graduates last year intended to farm, either immediately or in the future.
“I’m surprised those number are as high as they are with the rising cost of land … and job opportunities available,” said Mike Gaul, director of career services in the College of Agriculture. “I take my hat off to (prospective farmers). It’s about doing something that they really love.”
Ag officials believe the influx of young people could bolster food security and revive small towns.
“That is a positive thing for Iowa and a positive thing for rural America,” Whitacker said.
Until recently, the number of farms nationwide had steadily declined since World War II. The latest census figures show a 4 percent increase from 2002 to 2007, totaling a little more than 2.2 million farms. The net increase was 75,810, data indicates.
Mike Duffy says the increase is a bit deceiving. He’s director of the Beginning Farmer Center at ISU, which the Iowa Legislature created in 1994 to coordinate education programs and services for beginning farmers.
The government changed the way farms are counted during the last census, Duffy said.
Previously, a farm needed to sell at least $1,000 worth of commodities or livestock to qualify as such. Now, it only needs to be capable of doing so.
Census data show Iowa gained a little more than 2,000 farms between 2002 and 2007, totaling 92,856.
“I do see a trend and direction I like,” Duffy said. “Hopefully it is a reversal of the trend, but time will tell.”
The average age of principal farm operators nationally has increased from 50 in 1978 to 57 in 2007, roughly one year per census cycle. In Iowa, the average age jumped by 2 years every census dating back to 1992.
Duffy expects the aging pattern to stabilize or possibly reverse when new census figures come out. The strong farm economy is the primary reason, he said.
In the late 1960s, 16 percent of the nation’s farmers were 35 years old or younger. Then came the ’70s, a golden era of agriculture featuring strong prices and exports.
In 1978, after years of profits and an influx of new blood, 21 percent of farmers were younger than 36.
Seven percent the country’s farmers were 35 years old or younger in 2007, according to government figures.
“You can see the jump during the last boom,” Duffy said. “Getting back in the 20s may be wishful thinking … (but) I think there is a definite increase in interest as people are making more money.”
The robust ag economy and demand for local food are the driving forces behind the apparent resurgence of young people wanting to farm.
A survey taken in April at the 2012 Iowa FFA Conference in Ames showed members have a positive outlook about agriculture and opportunities available. Ninety-four percent of about 200 members surveyed said they want to pursue an ag-related career, up from 77 percent in 2005.
The latest DTN/The Progressive Farmer Agriculture Confidence Index has a value of 140.2 pertaining to the present situation of farmers. A value of 100 is considered neutral.
Optimism has translated to renewed interest in the ag business program at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo. Enrollment has doubled in the past 10 years to 45 during the last semester, according to instructor Dave Grunklee.
“Ten years ago parents were telling their children not to farm; it doesn’t pay. That’s not the case anymore,” Grunklee said. “There are so many more opportunities and niche markets, whether it’s raising crops or livestock or going into vegetable production.”
Forty percent of the spring graduating class is farming, he said. Ten years ago, that number was 10 percent or none.
Many students already own or rent land, Grunklee said, and go to Hawkeye to learn about running their operations. Others go to school while working on family farms, with the intention of taking over.
Beginning farmer loan activity is way up.
Whitacker said the number of such loans — administered by the Farm Service Agency — increased 60 percent during the past three years to about 4,000 statewide. Loans up to $300,000 are available.
Whitacker said the amount of money loaned out hasn’t changed, but more smaller loans are being approved, especially for produce farmers and those looking to satisfy niche markets, like grass-fed beef and free-range chickens.
Agriculture experts say there is an increased emphasis on market programs that motivate young people to produce food.
Practical Farmers of Iowa started a savings incentive program last year. The nonprofit organization promotes ecologically sound and community-enhancing approaches to agriculture.
The savings program helps young farmers overcome hurdles like hefty land prices, startup costs and the inevitable learning curve. Participants are matched with mentors and required to make regular deposits into farm savings accounts for two years, which PFI will match up to $2,400.
“It was started to help create the next generation of farmers. The demands are so huge for people wanting to start,” said Marc Strobbe, PFI farm viability coordinator.
Ten producers were accepted last year and 25 this year, including the Schuldts. Of the 25 farms admitted, 14 produce fruits and vegetables, two are growing herbs and the rest raise row crops and livestock.
While $4,800 doesn’t seem like a lot of money considering an acre of productive farm ground typically sells for $8,000 to $12,000 in Bremer County, the Schuldts said it will help.
“I have a feeling it will help toward buying this place,” Luke said.
Advice and support available through the program is just as valuable as money, Strobbe said.
Grundy County farmer Fred Abels, a longtime cattle and grain producer, is a mentor to the Schuldts. He wanted to help stem the tide of farm consolidations.
“That’s a concern of mine. It’s mirrored on main street and smaller towns drying up,” Abels said.
The Farm On Program at ISU, which links beginning farmers with retiring producers desiring to pass their farms to the next generation, has an extensive waiting list.
About 400 people hoping to farm have signed up, a 10-to-1 ratio compared to existing farmers in the program.
“A high number of student want to go back to the farm,” Duffy said. “The interest is picking up.”