Making it work: Young farmers meet challenges, adapt to continue a vital, revered way of life

Apr 6, 2017

Credit Sandra J. Milburn / Kansas Agland

From Kansas Agland:

One attribute that Colby Harner inherited from his father and grandfather is hard work.

The 25-year-old takes pride in this. It’s why he followed in their footsteps and became a farmer. He enjoys the work of raising crops and cattle, then reaping the harvest of his labor. 

But right now, eking out a living on the farm is even harder - especially for the young operator.

After several years of record-high prices across the Farm Belt, a glut of grain from last year’s bumper harvests has caused commodity prices to collapse, sending producers into a farm crisis not seen since the 1980s.

Last May, the Kansas Farm Management Service reported that net farm income in 2015 hit a 30-year low - reaching a level not seen since the 1980s farm crisis. Last fall, the Federal Reserve reported that farmers are borrowing more to pay bills, repayment rates are plunging, and the number of bankers requesting additional collateral is the highest in 25 years.

It might sound discouraging - especially for young farmers, most with less equity and experience trying to get a foothold in a career where the majority in the profession are turning gray.

Harner, however, sees blue sky. Both his dad, Doug, and grandfather, Kenny Sibils, have seen the ups and downs of the farm economy. They instilled in him a work ethic, along with other standards to live by:

Being conservative isn’t bad. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Don’t make long-term investments in a short-term income. Stay positive.

“This will cycle and get better,” he said with the optimism of a veteran farmer as he sat in his family’s home near the Reno County town of Partridge.

“If we could just get a couple more years of decent crops or income - get some payments made - we wouldn’t be in too bad of shape,” he said.

The aging farmer

With the average age of the Kansas farmer nearing 60, Harner is a minority on the Kansas landscape.

Kansas has about 62,000 farms, with about 32,000 where the operator considers farming his or her principal occupation.

In all, Kansas farms support 91,656 operators, a number that reflects the multigenerational families making a living on the farm. 

Yet, of those farmers, only 18,821 are below the age of 44 - or 20.5 percent, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.

The same trend spreads across the United States. Soon, the number of farms will drop below 2 million - a number not seen since before the Civil War. In 1880, the U.S. had more than 4 million farms, with Kansas representing 130,500 of them, according to historical censuses.

Kansas has been losing farms since the 1930s.

Harner said some of the people he went to college with grew up on the farm but didn't return after college. For some, it is because the farm can’t support another family.

“It is hard to get enough to feed all the families that would be involved in some of these bigger farms,” said Harner.

Harner, however, a fifth-generation farmer, never considered another occupation. His father, Doug, grew up on a small farm near Sylvia. But when Colby got out of high school in the 1980s, economic times were hard on the farm. He worked chopping silage and doing custom harvest and other jobs.

When Doug married his wife, Tawnya, her father, Kenny Sibils, hired him to work on the farm. Doug slowly built up his own operation around Kenny's farm.

“I didn’t know anything different,” said Colby Harner. “This has always been what I’ve wanted to do. I started running the tractor and grain cart when I was 9.

“That is all I wanted to do was come back,” he said. “I never considered anything else.”

He attended  Colby Community College, then came back to the farm in 2011 - at the start of a multi-year drought, but in a time of record prices.

But in the past five years on the farm, Harner has seen the highs and the lows. Bumper harvests the past few years have come at the cost of collapsed prices. Profit margins are tight. 

“It’s discouraging right now, and unfortunately Reno County survives on the ag economy,” said Harner, adding that Hutchinson’s Main Street is most likely feeling the pinch.

Harner, like his young counterparts in the business, isn't giving up.

Silver lining

For some, it doesn’t seem like the best time to return to the farm. According to the Center for Rural Affairs based in Nebraska, young farmers often lack the capital and the scale of operation required to make profits in an era of high-cost technologies and production systems. The barriers are evident, such as finding land and getting access to financing that will help pay for equipment and inputs.

Yet, some see a silver lining in it all - including Alex Vosburgh, 23, a Stafford County farmer who returned to the family farm after graduating from college last May, despite the poor economy. He and his wife, Karlee, a crop adjuster, have fixed up a home in Macksville.

Vosburgh said he knows the statistics. Yet, if he and other young farmers can make it through the hard times, there will be good opportunities.

“One thing my uncle (who farms near Trousdale) told me is, ‘All of us are getting old. Someone has to farm this ground,’ ” said Vosburgh, the sixth generation on the farm. “And that is true.

“I think there will be a lot of opportunities out of this downturn,” he said. “There are older farmers that are thinking, ‘I don’t want to go through this.’ ”

Instead of trying to climb out of the down cycle, they might decide to retire and find a young farmer to take over their land.

“It’s hard to go out and buy all the ground you farm with the price of the land as high as it is, but if you can find a farmer who says, ‘I see something in this kid that I had 30 or 40 years ago - I’ll give him a chance to farm my ground,’ ” Vosburgh said. 

After all, the population of U.S. agriculture is poised to make a dramatic change: According to the Center for Rural Affairs, half of all current farmers are likely to retire in the next decade.

Meanwhile, U.S. farmers over the age of 55 control more than half of the nation’s farmland.

Vosburgh said he hadn’t considered coming back at first. He graduated from Macksville High School in 2012, then ventured to Kansas State University to pursue a construction science management degree. After a few years, he realized he didn’t want to move to a big city like Chicago for his career. He wanted to come back to Stafford County and farm.

His brother, Andrew, returned to the operation about five years ago. Vosburgh's father, Justin, was encouraging to his youngest son, telling him that if he wanted to farm, he’d make it work. 

“His main thing was farming cycles,” said Vosburgh, adding, “When you have a family that has done this six generations, they can pass down that knowledge during the tough times.”

One thing his father has taught him is to treat landlords with respect.

“You are at the mercy of your landlords,” Vosburgh said. “You have to treat them right. If you don't, they are going to pull your acres and you won’t be able to make it work.”

In the big scheme of things, he said, the farmer is trying to make the landowner money. It's important to have an open relationship where the landowners can voice their opinions.

Also, said Vosburgh, he doesn't do anything that doesn't make economic sense. Most evenings, he sits down at the table, putting everything he is considering into a spreadsheet. 

“If I can put it on paper and it will work and make me money, then that is the way we go,” Vosburgh said. “In these bad years, we have to figure out what is the right crop to grow right now. And it isn't a 'One answer solves all.' ”

That includes holding off on capital purchases. Vosburgh and his brother exchange their labor for use of the family equipment.

“Just to be in business for six generations, you have to have a line of forward-thinking people,” he said.

Off-farm income to stay afloat

Cody Barilla moonlights as a farmer.

He travels an hour north during the week from the home where he and his wife, Hannah, live in Turon to his new job in Great Bend. He is a real estate appraiser for American Ag Credit.

Barilla works an off-farm job because the farm doesn't pay enough by itself.

“I just don’t want to jump off the cliff and try to make it in farming without a supplemental income,” he said.

His mother came from a veteran farm family that homesteaded in Stafford County in 1887. His grandmother, Joan Clark, who lives on the farm in Pratt County, still runs the family farm in Pratt and Stafford counties. 

But Barilla doesn’t have the traditional farm-kid background. He grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Kansas as a teenager. He knew he wanted to farm and, while attending Pratt County's Skyline High School, he took out a Farm Service Agency youth loan in high school to start his own small cow herd. A Pratt County farmer gave him a chance to rent 80 acres of pasture for his livestock.

He graduated from Skyline in 2007 and enrolled in Hutchinson Community College, where he was on the livestock and crop judging teams from 2007 through 2009. In 2010, he bought his first piece of ground from his family while still at K-State, thanks to a beginning farmer loan through the FSA.

However, Barilla said, he hasn't inherited land or equipment. He is trying to make it work on his own.

He graduated from K-State in 2011 and took a job as Reno County’s agriculture agent. A few years later, wanting to get more involved in farming, he took a job as a crop consultant.

In January, he started at American Ag Credit.

So far, he and Hannah are making it work, he said. He has a cow herd that he runs on grass in Oklahoma. He grazes stocker cattle locally on wheat acreage. He also grows corn, soybeans and wheat. This year, he is planting cotton.

His grandma and uncle are still there to help when he needs them. And he is there to help them, too.

Barilla also credits four things that helped him make it work. One is his off-farm job.

“My current employer, American Ag Credit, has been really good. It’s a flexible job and I really enjoy working for them,” he said.

Another is the landowners who gave him a chance.  

"Just like that guy that gave me a shot right at the beginning with 80 acres of pasture - without that I wouldn’t have been able to get started," he said. 

Also, thanks to the financing opportunities through the government, he now has enough equity to switch to a commercial bank, People's Bank in Pratt, which has helped him expand his farm.

Barilla also watches every penny that comes out of the farm account. He would like a new stock trailer, but right now it doesn’t calculate, so he continues to use 30- and 40-year-old equipment.

“I run the cash flow on everything,” he said. “You have to be really conservative. I run through the numbers two or three times."

Near Pretty Prairie, Matt Krehbiel, 26, worked on the farm full time for a while, but there wasn’t enough income to support two families.

Five years ago he started Krehbiel Tree Clearing, a business that includes cutting down trees, fence building and other jobs. Last year, his business cleared more than 2,000 acres of trees.

He stays involved in production agriculture, running a herd of cows.

“I just enjoy working with the cattle,” he said.

Future

Harner has found his own ways to diversify his income on the farm. In 2013, he started Sugar Creek Sales, a retail business where he markets cattle equipment and radiant heaters. He and his dad also expanded their hay operation, and they do custom haying for neighbors.

“When I moved back in 2011, it was so dry that we started putting up hay for ourselves,” Harner said. “It turned into everyone needing hay and it turned into a custom operation.”

Today, they sell alfalfa, prairie hay and sudangrass, and they bale corn and milo stalks.

Harner's dad and a hired man spend nearly every day of the week hauling hay across the state, including to Dodge City and Scott City, as well as surrounding states. Hay is even going to road construction projects in Alabama.

“It all really helps in this economy,” Harner said, later adding, “Maybe we have too much going on, but we have several different avenues and it sure helps pay the bills.”

He continues to look at the future. In October, Harner will marry his fiancée, Amanda Troyer. They are looking for a home. He also is taking over his grandfather’s operation slowly.

“There are still ways to make it work, and we found those ways,” he said.