Farmers are getting older.
They’re working longer, staying on the land later and continuing to do what they’ve done for decades: heading out day after day after day to work their land.
In 1978, the average age of the American farmer was just over 50. In 2007, it’s creeping toward 60, at just over 57-years-old. What does that mean for the agriculture industry? We went to answer that question by focusing on this massive demographic shift that affects not just rural America but the power and potential of an entire industry.
The third part of our Harvest Desk's series Changing Lands-Changing Hands:
It’s not just lifelong farmers who feel the pull of the land as they get older. For some Americans, retirement is an opportunity to begin the farming dream.
“I wanted to be able to be active and have a pastime that ensured physical activity,” said beginning farmer Tom Thomas, who at 65 still has the physical fitness to wrestle and brand steers at his son’s ranch in Oklahoma.
Thomas retired two years ago after teaching exercise physiology for 35 years and he knew what he wanted to do next.
“With a farm, you’re sitting here drinking a second cup of coffee in the morning and it’s pulling at you…” Thomas said. “I walk around the farm at least twice a day. And so I’m always checking things and figuring out what needs to be done next.”
Most days, Thomas can be found tending corn, soybeans and other crops on 300 acres of rolling hills and wetlands he purchased near Fayette, Mo.
Retiring to the farm is fairly rare. Only 12 percent of beginning farmers are over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Yet Thomas’s 67-year-old brother-in-law is doing the same thing. Jim Schulte and his wife, Rita, bought their 450-acre farm near Columbia, Mo., in 1991. They moved to it from the Kansas City suburbs that same year. But full-time farming had to wait – Schulte wasn’t quite done with his suit-and-tie jobs, in the seed brokerage and mortgage businesses.
“In the early 2000s, the seed brokerage business basically was changing so dramatically and I was 55-56, and I was beginning to think, ‘I don’t think I want to do that anymore and I think I’ll just be a country farmer, a country gentleman,’” Schulte said.
Schulte finally retired in 2010. In his gold wristwatch, starched plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans he looks more businessman than farmer. Still Schulte’s been growing about 200 acres of corn and soybeans on his farm each year since “retirement.” And it suits him.
“I like to work alone and just, you know, do my thing,” he said. “I might leave in the morning and come back in the evening and not see anybody. That’s OK. I’ll see no telling what all kind of wildlife and it’s all interesting.”
It’s not surprising that retirees are starting their own businesses – 12 percent to 15 percent of Baby Boomers are projected to after retirement – or doing something they’re passionate about in their golden years, according to the AARP.
“A lot of them, for the rest of their lives, they don’t really need a time to wind down but to really grow and follow some passion and continue to learn,” said Bruce Koeppl, vice president of the AARP’s Midwest region. “It's actually referred to now as an ‘age of retirement,’ where people are living their dreams, adapting, reimagining their lives.”
Not every retiree can afford the high prices of farmland or the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to purchase farm equipment. Sometimes Schulte also wonders if retiring to the farm wasn’t a bit too ambitious.
“There are times that I even now think about when you climb up on top of a grain bin to do something and you’re not 16 anymore,” Schulte said. “If you happen to slip or come off there, something’s going to break and that’s just the way it is as you get older.”
And there are never enough hours in the day to take care of every tree limb that falls down or pull up every weed growing in the ground. So Schulte just does what he can manage.
The farm work is also wearing on his brother-in-law.
“I’m probably doing more than I want to do in terms of farming and that also leads me to think about the future and how long I might want to do this,” Thomas said. “Because this was a young man's dream.
You know, I would want to move to a farm like this when I was 30 or 40 years old. Even though I manage it to where it’s not very stressful, it's still more than I want to do.”
But with crop prices high, farmland is an extremely good investment. It could one day provide just the extra funds Schulte and Thomas need to get them to the next phases of their lives.