Families of Farmers

posted January 14, 2009

Great young farmer article!  A thrilling vindication of what we’ve always known, families and farms thrive together. My own (tall, strong, handsome) brother will be working with me on my farm this summer, and I think we’ll all be the better for it. – Severine

Seeds of Success, By Jimmy LaRoue

Published: January 10, 2009

WEYERS CAVE – When Wes Kent traveled last month to Hot Springs for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Convention, it was his first vacation in more than three years.

It proved worthwhile. Kent came away with the Young Farmer Achievement Award, providing him a second vacation, this one to San Antonio for this week’s American Farm Bureau Federation 90th annual convention.

Such trips are far more the exception than the norm for Kent, 34, who, besides being married with three young children, runs a 600-acre beef, dairy, grain and turkey operation that, even with some much-appreciated help, keeps him working steady, 15-hour days, seven days a week.

That schedule does not allow for much downtime, but it does allow him solitude and the ability to be his own boss, something he cherishes.

“The cows don’t talk back,” Kent said.

Kent is an anomaly in farming. He is youthful compared to many of his peers, and farming is not for him a family affair as it is for others.

The average age of farmers is 57. An American Farm Bureau Federation survey of young farmers found that 40 percent got started through a family partnership, while 30 percent got into farming on their own, like Kent.

Joining that group has been no small feat for Kent, a 2000 Virginia Tech graduate.

It began with an arduous search for a dairy farm in the Shenandoah Valley – where he grew up and where he was comfortable with the agricultural infrastructure in place.

“My hat is off to him and his family for doing that,” said Greg Hicks, communications director for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s difficult to get into farming if your family hasn’t been into it. It’s very cost-prohibitive in many cases to start from scratch.”

Kent’s first hurdle getting into farming was finding a farm to lease after buying 30 milk cows and a few head of cattle through a $200,000 loan. Kent said he gained valuable experience while paying off college debt.

The family for whom Kent worked put their farm up for sale in 2004, putting him in a bind. He had not established enough equity to buy the $800,000 farm.

He eventually tapped the American Farmland Trust’s lease-to-purchase program. Under that arrangement, the trust essentially became the farm’s caretaker for 18 months until Kent could pay off his Farm Credit loan. Then he can buy the real estate and take over the turkey operation.

“I’ve got 16 more years to pay and I’ll be debt-free,” Kent said.

Now he owns 180 acres outright while running the 600-acre operation with 120 milk cows, 100 beef cattle, a small feed lot, 50 head of steer, a turkey house with 33,000 hens along with corn, hay and barley fields. Kent also works Don and Carole Landes’ farm, part of a sharecropping operation that allows him to add much-needed income.

His biggest challenge: finding good help to perform all the farm chores.

Just one hired hand, Kent says, can cost up to $40,000 a year, including benefits.

“The workforce, or the labor force for people wanting to be employed on farms is very minimal,” Kent said. “There’s just not people out there that want to work on farms …”

Kent said it took him two years before he could afford more than part-time labor.

“I pretty much slaved for two years, twice a day, everyday, milking the cows,” Kent said.

To afford full-time help, Kent had to take over turkey house operations.

“However, that’s great as long as the employees stay with you,” Kent said. “I mean, I had several employees that were just, one day they didn’t show up and they were gone, and here you are with enough work for two people, and only one of you.”

Going up to eight months without an employee caused strains on family life. Without relatives to help him, Kent had no one to take the farm for a weekend or a day off. He had to “hurry up and get back” from day trips so he could milk cows at four in the afternoon.

“It made it hard to balance anything non-farm,” Kent said. “It caused a lot of serious problems with, basically, overall exhaustion. Heck, I’d get up at four every morning and wouldn’t stop ’til nine at night and no lunch breaks. I did it for a long time, but that’s what I had to do.”

In 2006, Kent got a partner, who bought into the farm and owns half the cows and machinery and manages the dairy operations, while Kent takes care of the rest.

“The partnership has been a challenge and it’s been a blessing,” Kent said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

Kent’s partner is moving on, however. He has found a Pennsylvania couple who will live on the farm, lease the facility and buy Kent’s cows. Kent will help raise feed for the animals while continuing the turkey and beef operations.

In addition, a Mexican migrant worker lives on the farm and works with Kent.

“It’s very hard to find good domestic help,” the farm bureau association’s Hicks said. “Migrant workers have helped fill the void over the last couple of decades. Whether that’s going to be the trend of the future remains to be seen. Farm work is difficult work, and it’s difficult to attract people to it.”

The price of fuel also has affected operations, as crop production costs have increased 35 percent to 40 percent, and beef cattle prices “are way off.”

The price of corn is another problem, Kent said, because of increased ethanol production. Most Shenandoah Valley farmers, he said, cannot produce enough grain. He’s paying twice as much for dairy feed as when he started, and labor, he said, “is never cheaper.” New equipment and repair costs also have increased.

Kent has enough to pay the bills, but estimates that he’s netting 25 percent to 30 percent less money than last year.

“There’s not that cushion of income that we’re accustomed to in the past,” Kent said. “It’s been a tight year.”

In the informal American Farm Bureau Federation survey, young farmers listed land and facility availability, as well as profitability, as their top concerns.

“If farm profitability would improve, that would make it a lot more inviting for young people to get involved,” Hicks said.

More than 80 percent, though, are more optimistic about the future than they were five years ago.

Hicks hopes more older farmers will consider hiring younger farmers to ultimately take over the operations, especially those without additional family to help. He’s also an advocate of purchase-of-development rights programs as a way to preserve farmland.

Even with little time off to take in such things as a basketball game, as he will do during his trip to San Antonio with his wife, Martha, Kent is not about to change.

“One of the reasons I got into doing this was because I like being my own boss,” Kent says. “I’m stubborn and hardheaded and I don’t like being told what to do.”