Young Farmers Weigh In On A Challenging Year

Dec 27, 2019

It's been a challenging year for American farmers.

Farmers in the U.S. witnessed a trade war with China unfold, farm debt continues to pile on and delays in planting due to extreme weather linked to climate change.

And as farmers get older — their average age is 58 years old — what does the next generation of farmers look like? Will they face the same barriers?

Gracie Weinzierl recently began farming on Weinzierl-Stephens Farms in Stanford, Illinois. The 27-year-old comes from a family of farmers who grows cash grains such as corn and soybeans.

She says she's celebrating the end of a rough year.

"The year started with rain and the year ended out with rain," she says.

Because of wet weather, her farm was about three weeks behind their regular schedule, she says. Fortunately, her crops grew like normal, however harvest was delayed, something she says was "very stressful."

Davon Goodwin, an Army veteran, is the first in his family to pursue farming. He grows speciality crops — grapes and blackberries — at the OTL Farms in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Like Weinzierl, he is no stranger to the onslaught of rain.

"We were supposed to plant earlier in the year, but our property was flooded so we couldn’t plant," he says.

The 31-year-old says he and his wife paid off debt and saved the rest in order to purchase a 42-acre farm to call their own.

Both young farmers have "off-farm jobs" to pay the bills. Goodwin says most of his farming friends financially sustain themselves that way.

This is not out of the ordinary — 64% of small, independent farmers work an additional job, according to Modern Farmer.

"I would definitely say having off-the-farm income is, I won’t say the only way you can do it, but it gives you a lot of security," he says. "Knowing that if I have crop failure, I’m still going to get a paycheck, that’s a big deal."

Interview Highlights

On harvesting crops later than initially expected

Gracie Weinzierl: "You have to wonder, it’s like, am I going to get a crop in the ground? When you’re growing corn, you have to worry about the next steps that fall into succession after you plant your crops. You have to think about whether I can get additional fertilizer on that goes out throughout the season, whether I’m going to have issues with weed control or disease and insects that a lot of times are influenced by wet weather and whether or not you’re going to have enough growing time for the crop itself before the first frost."

On whether she made less money than she thought she would in 2019

GW: "I would say that I’m not sure that all of the crop has been sold for our farm yet, but it also is very dependent on the prices. I would say in terms of yield, our yields were a little bit down. Our soybeans weren’t too far off average, which we’re very thankful for. Corn was a little bit lower because it was more impacted by that rain and the cool growing season getting started."

On Goodwin's grape and blackberry business

Davon Goodwin: "We just started planting. … We’re definitely behind. Then when you have a perennial crop, it’s going to take you three years for your first commercial harvest, that means I missed a whole growing season. But at the same time, we were thankful that we’re able to start planting now and start getting ready for 2020."

On buying land for farming

DG: "It was challenging. I was a farm manager for the last five years, and I lived in a camper for the last five years. And my wife lived in a whole different part of state for the last five years. We saved up a lot of money and tried to pay off as much debt as we possibly could. And the economic kind of outlook looked a little better. And then I had a real job off the farm. I wasn’t making enough just farming. So I had to have a traditional eight to five off the farm to kind of make it work throughout the course of our last year."

GW: "It seems that all of the cards were in my favor this year. Like Davon, I have worked off the farm since graduating from college, working also in the agriculture industry full time. But my family has farmed land from one of the landlords that we have right now for almost 100 years now. So it’s been passed down from generation to generation, both on the farming side and land ownership side. And so that’s really cool for us to have had such a long relationship. One branch of the landlord’s family decided that they wanted to sell some land this year and they were willing to sell it to us. We made them an offer and they were willing to accept it. And then I had the opportunity to buy a portion of that field knowing that I couldn’t buy the full 60 acres and still be able to make the payments with my off-farm income. So another family member was able to pick up the other part of the field. That was really an awesome opportunity for me because traditionally, you might go to a land auction and be expected to come up with the money and the line of credit right away. The seller was willing to work with us. They were patient while I worked through the loan process and making all of this happen. So it was just really lucky that I was able to buy something affordable for me and get my feet wet."

On working an off-farm job

GW: "My dad farmed and my uncle farmed with my dad and they both worked off the farm. And I don’t ever expect to be a full-time farmer. The insurance is really nice. It’s nice to have that extra income."

On Trump's trade war with China

GW: "I would say that it's definitely decreased what we’re looking at for soybean prices right now. There are soybeans in storage with nowhere to go at the moment. But I’m optimistic about the future. I’m optimistic that we will find places for those soybeans to go, whether it be new domestic markets or new international markets that we hadn’t considered before."

On whether the trade war comes up in conversation

DG: "It [does], especially with more of the provisional row croppers. I think it’s a big deal. I kind of agree with Gracie. I’m pretty optimistic as well. I think as a young person getting into this field, I think you have to be pretty optimistic that some of these issues will kind of fade away and there’ll be a kind of a brighter tomorrow."

On farming debt

DG: "For me, farming is [not just] about making money, but is giving my community access to food. But we do talk a lot about the debt because we had to buy new equipment this year. We put out deer fencing and that was really expensive. My wife asked me, ‘How much money are we going to have to spend before we make that threshold of profitability?’ And I tell her I think we have another $50, $60,000 at least just to get the grapes in the ground. I mean, grapes are costing me right around $8,000 an acre to put them in the ground."

On finding their place — Weinzierl, a white woman and Goodwin, a black man — in the farming industry

GW: "I would say I have never felt that I don’t fit into the industry. Yes, stereotypically [the average farmer] is the middle-aged white male. I think of my dad. But I think to that, especially with the way the Ag census is tracked up until recently, it’s misrepresented what’s actually happening as far as who farmers are. Traditionally they asked, 'Who is the decision-maker on the farm?' and oh, you can only have one person. Whereas, growing up I knew that my grandpa farmed, but my grandma was just as involved. She’d be the one hauling the grain to the elevator. But maybe she didn’t identify as the primary decision-maker. I think that agriculture is very inclusive. And I think that we are doing more to be more inclusive in the future. And I’m really excited to see more beginning farmers really enter the field."

DG: "That’s an interesting question. I do feel like I fit in. I think it’s a double-edged sword type question. I think obviously people of color [have] been marginalized for a long time when it comes to land and land access and who gets to have land [and] who gets the farm. It bothers me, definitely, because I think people of color do want to farm, I think, in a lot of instances. But I think there [are] not a lot of my peers who farm that are people of color. I think in the future, I think that number will increase. But right now, I think we have a long way to go."


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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