Not All Farm Kids Grow Up to Be Farmers

When I was at my brother’s high school graduation last month, I looked at the 44 students sitting on the stage, and I had a few thoughts. (Don’t scoff. My graduating class was 35 students. It’s called small Idaho farming communities.)

I pondered just how many of these students grew up on farms, worked on farms, were part of the Future Farmers of America, or at very least lived within a mile of a farm. Each could never deny he or she knew the life—feeding calves, moving pipe, playing in canals, etc.

But how many will go on to be farmers?

In 1900, 42 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms, Robert Switzer in his book “A Family Farm: Life on a Illinois Dairy Farm.” Less than 2 percent do now.

And the Census of Agriculture reports that the average age of farmers is increasing, reflecting the decrease in new farmers.

“In 2012, the number of new farmers who have been on their current operation less than ten years was down 20 percent from 2007,” according to the census.

The guest speaker was federal Judge Ted Stewart. He grew up in my hometown, and his family had a dairy farm. He took time during his speech to mention his roots.

“I’m so grateful that I grew up on a small dairy farm and that I had to milk cows twice a day and I always smelled like manure,” he said.

But the thing is, the Stewarts don’t dairy anymore.

My brother Kyle, one of the graduates, has spent his life living on a farm. And despite what we often argue in our family, he has spent quite a bit of time working on the farm—feeding calves, pitching pens, and more.

Kyle with my Grandma and Grandpa Nielsen.

And while Kyle is grateful for this background and the family legacy, he doesn’t want to be a farmer himself. He likes math and computers and plans to pursue a career in actuarial science.

“I don’t really plan to come back and own the farm. I plan on moving off and going to college and getting my own career—a different one,” he said to me. “I like to do math—lots of math and quantitative reasoning.

So he looks to his younger brother, who has every right at his age to not have a decision about his future career. I spent some time a few weeks ago talking to my grandpa about the Nielsen farming heritage, and he shared his uncertainty about what will happen to our farm in the future.

“On this farm here at this point right now, Wynn doesn’t have boys who want to farm, so I don’t know what will happen. Maybe that will be the end of the era,” my grandpa said.

The end of the farm is not something that any of us in the family like to discuss. While we would never pressure another to give up dreams to take on the farm, it’s hard to imagine not having it. And the death sentence hasn’t been served yet. None of us know exactly what will happen, and perhaps Hawarden Jerseys has more generations left.

Even Kyle is reluctant to leave the farm if no one else is there to take it on, and he says he might do it if his younger brother doesn’t.

“I would probably come [back],” he said. “I don’t really want it to just be gone—all those experiences that people could have. It’s a great place to come back to.”

Now as much as I’m concerned about the future of my family farm. I bring this up to discuss the broader issue of the decline of family farms more broadly, and not having someone to inherit the farm is only one of the problems. In my next few posts, I’ll write about others.


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