ST. ALBANS — Will the next generation follow their parents into farming? That’s the question facing agriculture here and across the country.
A recent analysis of U.S. Census of Agriculture data by American Farmland Trust (AFT) found 30 percent of New England farmers will exit the business in the next 10 years or so. That might not be surprising. Any local farmer will tell you business isn’t booming.
What is surprising, however, is the study’s determination that 90 percent of farmers aren’t working with young farmers — that they have no one in mind to take over the farm.
Jesse Robertson-DuBois, the New England director for AFT, said in a press release that “a large number of older farmers are worried about their ability to retire and find a younger farmer who can afford to buy their land.” Older farmers who participated in the study’s focus groups want to see their land remain in the farming industry, but also fear that won’t be financially viable in the future.
Case in point: Jacques Rainville, a second-generation farmer living in Highgate. Rainville, who, in his 60s, is what the study considered an older farmer, does have a successor in mind: his son.
“But I don’t know how he’s going to do it,” Rainville said. “He can’t pay the bills to take over the farm. I’m driving a truck, supplying milk across the state, just to pay the electric bill on the farm. It’s a pretty sad situation.”
Sheldon farmer Bill Rowell, of Green Mountain Dairy, is another older farmer. For Rowell’s farm, which contains more than 900 milking cows, and which Rowell describes on the farm website as a “large-scale farming operation,” its uncertain future depends a little less on the financial and a little more on who will take charge.
“You don’t think about it too much when you’re younger,” Rowell said. “You think about how you’re going to take it over, not how somebody else is going to take it over. But as you get older, you start to look around and identify the next generation for that farm.”
Rowell’s daughter has chosen a life beyond the farm. The top contenders to take over now are the children of his brother Brian, with whom he runs Green Mountain Dairy.
“Are they interested?” Rowell muses. “They work here every day. There are days when their level of interest seems light. There are days when they don’t have a high enough level of interest. But they’re here every day.”
Rowell said Brian’s son, Matthew, who is 21, “has a good perspective. He’s turning all the rocks to see if there’s anything under them. That’s what it takes if you’re going to make it on a farm. If you’re not interested, then you don’t qualify as a candidate.”
The number of U.S. dairy farms decreased by 88 percent between 1970 and 2006, from 648,000 to 75,000. That number continues to decrease at a similar rate. But Rowell sees a different obstacle front and center for future farmers.
Rowell said he told his brother, “‘Gee, Brian, I don’t know with all these regulations how these kids are going to make it. This is an obstacle.’ He said, ‘For you and I it is. They grew up with regulation, and they grew up with computers. They look at it entirely different than you and I do. For them, it’s the way it is.’”
They have a practical view of farming, Rowell said, because they grew up with it. “I remember Matthew, when you couldn’t put him to sleep, we’d take him out and put him in the diesel pickup and let it sit there and idle,” he said. “Because he’d spent so much time in that pickup idling, he’d go to sleep. You grow up with it, and you understand it. It’s second nature to you. You don’t get excited. You don’t get rattled.”
Bakersfield farmer Paul Stanley, who runs Paul-Lin Farm with Linda, his wife, said transitioning the farm is a work in progress. Stanley participates in Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy program, along with 300 other farmers from the U.S. and Europe. According to Ben & Jerry’s, the program “helps dairy farmers measure and manage their farms’ sustainability.” Participation in the program requires farmers to work out a transition plan.
Paul works as a nutrient management specialist for dozens of local farms, and Linda said the majority of those farmers have successors in mind. They say successful farm transitions are happening. “It’s not all gloom and doom,” Paul said.
He says the problem of locating another generation of farmers is a symptom of the biggest problem: increasing the demand.
“It revolves around the economics,” Paul said. “If we don’t get a good price for milk and our agricultural goods, it’s kind of hard to get the next generation in. The only way we’re going to do that is to increase the market through promotion and that kind of thing, or reduce production.”
Swanton farmer Dick Longway said the issue of transitioning the farm is not something he worries about. His sons Travis, 35, and Adam, 33, will take over his farm.
“They already do all the managing of the farm,” Longway said. “I get to just sit back and do what they tell me to do.”
But even Longway has seen evidence of difficult transitions. His sons have purchased nearby farms that had closed without somebody to take over. “The first farm I bought, they had seven kids. They didn’t have anybody interested in it,” Longway said. “The farm where we milk now, they had six or seven kids, and they didn’t have any interest in it. Pretty much the five farms that we own were farms where there wasn’t another generation interested.”
Today’s younger farmers are already considering this situation. “It’s definitely becoming a bigger issue,” said Amanda St. Pierre. She operates Pleasant Valley Farms in Richford with her husband, Mark. The St. Pierres are in their late 40s. They have a 23-year-old daughter, and two sons, aged 19 and 21.
“They’re fairly young as far as making those bigger decisions,” St. Pierre said. “But as of now, we are looking at farm transition. It’s a complicated process, and we certainly as parents want to give them opportunities to work with us prior to restricting them to actual ownership. They’re young, and we want them to go to college, experience whatever they need to experience, work outside the family for a while before they make that big commitment.”
Longway said interesting new generations in farming is mostly a matter of luck. “But also it comes down to some parents who aren’t interested, that won’t give their kids any responsibility,” he said. “I’m just the opposite.”
Rowell believes keeping future generations interested in the shifting face of farming depends on promoting interest and understanding. “You insist on it, for one thing,” he said. “You incentivize it, and insist on it. It requires science, and math — all this is, is a big science and economics experiment. But there’s an art to it, and there’s a patience for it, and a love for it.
“Really, it comes down to the individual. And quite frankly, not everybody’s interested.”