GOSHEN, Ind. — I spoke to a farmer-friend last month who had a big disappointment in his life: his son had decided not to return to the farm. He was saddened by the turn of events, but in some ways, he understood the young man may not have much of a choice.
This is a scene that has been repeated many times on other farms across the Midwest. The sadness is sometimes coupled with frustration, anger or even a sense of guilt or shame. In some cases, I have even noticed a sense of relief that the children are not going back to the farm.
I can think of several factors that have driven the exodus from the farm. One is mechanization. Modern machinery allows one person to farm more acres and milk more cows than the previous generations, so it takes less people to do the same job. Since the 1900s, we have moved to a reality where only 1% of the US population is actively farming. There just are not as many “open positions” in agriculture as there used to be.
The size of the farm needed to support multiple families is growing. If you think about farm income as a pie, the pie that feeds two families must be larger than a pie needed to feed one family. Not only does the pie need to be larger to support another family, it may also need to be grow in size to support changing lifestyle expectations. For most kids trying to become a part of the family businesses, it means buying into the operation, and working some long hard hours, while at the same time expanding the income sources by taking on profitable enterprises.
Another factor affecting the return to the farm is outside opportunities, which are plentiful here. I hear this often from the Amish families in the area, but it certainly is not limited to the Amish. The local factories pay good wages, and it’s hard to generate enough income on a farm to compete, much less support a new family. After gaining some experience in the factories, I often see people go off on their own, starting side businesses that provide income and eventually lead to a full-time job for others. Many of our local woodworking businesses started out as an entrepreneurial dream in a factory.
There is a difference in how our kids are raised and educated too, and it affects the return to the farm. Years ago, farm kids were raised in schools with other farm kids. Today, the consolidated schools are a mix of rural, urban and farm kids. They have the same classes and social activities; eat the same foods and they develop long term friendships. The farm kids see a different way of life through their friends, and sometimes that’s appealing to them. We see more Amish districts setting up schools in recent years, in part to help keep their communities together in a world that might pull them apart.
As I see it, there are many challenges to getting kids to come back to the farm including competition for wages, modern lifestyle choices and planning for the growth of the farm to accommodate new families. It’s not always in the best interest of the farm business to absorb another family into the farm without careful planning and a true desire to live the life that is a modern farmer.
–Jeff Burbrink, Extension Educator
Purdue Extension Elkhart County