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Lack of land thwarts aspiring young farmers

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

The average age of American farmers has been climbing for decades, and many say rural towns are at-risk without new blood. There are enough people who want to farm, but there’s trouble connecting beginning farmers and the communities that need them.

The first results from the 2012 Census of Agriculture are in. The study comes out every five years. It documents what people are growing, what it is worth, and who is growing it.

For the last few decades, the census has shown that farmers have been getting older. The average farmer was 50 years-old in 1978. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday the preliminary results for the 2012 ag census show that number went up again.

“The average age is in excess of 58 years,” Vilsack said. “And that continues a trend that has occurred over the course of the last 20 to 30 years.”

But, Vilsack said, there were signs of progress. The number of farmers under 35 years-old grew slightly, about 1 percent nationally.

One factor limiting the number of new farmers is the amount of land that is available to them.

Virginia Meyer of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., finding land is a recurring problem for aspiring young farmers. The Center runs a program called Land Link that matches landowners and land seekers. But Meyer says the people offering land are far outnumbered by those looking.

“We have over 500 beginning farmers and ranchers who are looking for land and a little over 30 landowners,” Meyer said.

Eric Brockmann is one of those would-be farmers. Brockmann lives on a sleepy street in the small town of West Point, in northeast Nebraska. Brockmann would love to spend his days out feeding the pigs or fixing a tractor. But on a recent day, he had the day off from his job managing an ethanol plant, one and a half hours away, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He says running the ethanol plant is a good job, but it’s not exactly the career he wanted.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love what I’m doing right now,” Brockmann said. “But what I’ve always wanted to do is farm. Be in the dirt. All the time.”

He got a taste for farming growing up in the tractor. Brockmann’s parents feed hogs and farm 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans outside of West Point.

“I love it. It’s something special I guess,” he said. “Put a seed in the ground. Grow it. (You’re) feeding the world.”

Brockmann still helps out on the family farm around planting and harvest, but he won’t be taking over the family business. His dad is just in his 40s and Eric Brockmann’s brother wants to farm too.

“There isn’t a whole lot of farm ground to spread out amongst three people,” Brockmann said. “(That) makes it pretty difficult, and to find your own ground is pretty hard.”

Prospective farmers all over the country are having trouble finding the land to get started. Dave Baker of Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center says it’s a threat to the long-term survival of rural communities. 

Small, rural towns are losing people. Baker says they need young families to regenerate businesses and institutions built by previous generations.

“I look at small rural communities and churches and schools and say, ‘If you’re not making opportunities for young people to join you in your area, you’re a terminal community,’” Baker said.

To stay viable, Baker says rural towns need more people like Eric Brockmann, who lived in Omaha with his wife and their five kids before moving to West Point six months ago. He hopes it’s for good. Brockmann wants to get on the local school board and he says he’s committed to finding a farm, as long as it may take.

“Keep your name out there. Keep calling. Keep asking around,” he said. “If you want to eventually get some ground you have to be persistent because there’s more people out there looking for the same thing.”

If rural communities want to stay strong, they’ll need more beginners to find their way onto the farm. They’ll find Brockmann and other prospective farmers are ready to get their hands dirty.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.