Our Changing Farms

by Charles E. Page

February 2011

Recently, I read a story in the Madison County Courier written by Columnist, “City Slicker”, Linda Haley, about a course for “wanna be farmers”. It presented problems facing present day farmers. This particular class meeting discussed “keeping the farm in the family” by passing it on to younger generations. How to do it and have it work out successfully is one of the tough ones.

That problem has been with us for many years. Note the declining number of farms and farmers!

For a number of years I worked as FER (Farm Employment Representative) for the State of New York. My work involved visiting farmers to help them secure suitable employees, hopefully experienced, but more often, not. I encountered that “passing the farm on” problem in those days, too.

Often, the children did not want to stay and run the farm. Long hours, hard work, low wages, and no time for recreation. The parents, particularly the father, had always expected to pass the farm to a son or daughter. The father would became bitterly disappointed when the child suddenly announced he was not taking over.

Sometimes a child would stay and try to run the farm, even though doubtful if this was what he wanted, but his father's expectations pressured him. Usually this would not work out for long, especially when the son married. Financial failure, bitterness, and recriminations often followed.

Many of such situations could have been eased somewhat if the family had had the foresight to have frequent “family meetings” to discuss future plans well in advance of the need to make the final decision. In positively conducted meetings everything would come out into the open - how everyone in the family felt and what they wanted to see happen. As a minimum, there would be no surprises, and each would know what the others were thinking. However, in such meetings it might be as important to discuss “SHOULD” the transfer be made at all? The son is doing most of the work now, and could continue on his own PROVIDING conditions remained as at present. We have learned they will not! Read more about this when you come to the last page of this article. Stick with me!

A few families are successful in holding to their dream of successfully keeping the farm though many following generations. I began to wonder what made the difference, why it worked for them and not for most.

I believe farmers, like most of us, tend to make important decisions emotionally, rather than objectively.

I think certain conditions were usually present if transfers were successful. (Here, I am talking only in terms of the general dairy farm, the traditional type in my area of New York State)

First: It was a “successful” prosperous operation to begin with, with finances in good shape.

Second: The parent and son/daughter had a good relationship working on the farm together as the child grew up. Each were respectful of the opinions of the other in planning for the future, easily sharing their ideas and thoughts as they worked along through the child's growing years.

Third: The farm was large enough to handle expansion and to support both parent and son families.

Fourth: It was “good land”, productive and well drained, with fields that could be worked efficiently.

It seldom worked out if parent and child, all along, had had stubbornly conflicting ideas of how the farm should be run.

In some cases a son might WANT to stay on the farm. The parents might sell him the farm, cattle and machinery, taking a share of his income (monthly milk check) for payment. This would give the son an opportunity to buy an operating business without a large down payment, also give the parents some monthly income to live on.

However, at the same time if the parents, while running the farm, were only just able “to get by” on the farm income, it is not surprising that the young family, with part of the income shunted to the parents, had an even tougher time. Often they tried to solve that problem by borrowing money to buy more cows to raise their output. Of course, this led them deeper into debt and even more hard work and longer hours.

I saw this happen over and over. The young people then had to face the reality that it just was not working out, and must decide what to do next. Sometimes the parents would take back the farm and sell out, leaving all concerned with financial and emotional losses.

In the case of one family, the children had all left the farm but the parents, “Jim” and “Rosie”, had kept on with the farm and large dairy herd. Rosie worked alongside Jim in the fields and in the barn. They were getting by, but times were hard, and they weren't young any more.

As I visited them occasionally, I noticed the strain was beginning to show. Rosie worried about Jim's working so hard, and he worried about her, and felt guilty that his wife was forced to work and worry like that.

The strain became too much and Rosie was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. It was then that, Jim accepted the fact that the old life and prospects for farmers had changed . He had to make a decision. He decided to sell his cows, and began to look for an off-farm job. He talked to me about what kind of a non-farm job he might get, never having worked at anything else.

I reminded him about his mechanical ability. Like most farmers he did his own machinery repairs, etc.

It was during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and his “Great Society”. I and my partner at work were able to get him enrolled in a “re-training” program to learn the entry level trade of machinist. Polls had shown a shortage of those workers.

Jim enrolled in the training, graduated successfully, and was immediately hired by a nearby company. He enjoyed that job, with its shorter hours and steady pay check. Rosie was relieved and gradually recovered from her breakdown. Jim worked at that job for a few years, long enough to be eligible for a small pension, and they retired to Florida. Alberta and I visited them one winter when we took a short vacation, and found them to be living leisurely and happily. It was the way one aging couple decided to answer its problem.

In thinking about the experiences that I had came across while working as an FER for the State, it just came to me! In my long life, I myself, faced similar if slightly different, problems! I had lived through this era. What did I do??

I , too, was a farmer. Since early childhood in our small city, I had looked forward to owning my own farm and living the same life style as my grandfather.

My farming situation was a little different from most, in that as my parents both died young, I would become the parent-farm-owner, and at some future time would have to make my own decisions concerning changes. I never dreamed that farming would change so drastically over the years.

But change, it did! The changing economic times brought the same problems to me as to all farmers. However, as the years passed, I was able to see the “hand writing on the wall” in time to see what changes I had to make to keep pace. I made each necessary change, as the need arose, but not without the same reluctance, misgivings and emotional stress.

In a way it was easier for me than in instances I have cited above. I started before my marriage. Just myself to consider! At age 25 I had paid off my farm mortgage and although I had very low income, and next to nothing in the bank, I had no debts. I paid as I went, charged nothing. At that time, I took the plunge and was married. My “wife to be” and I discussed at length what our life would be like. So, she knew all about my financial condition, and what kind of a life she could expect. It would be mainly subsistence type living, producing most of our food and fuel, and preserving vegetables and meat for the winters. Cash income would primarily be used to run the farm, hopefully to prosper and expand.

We decided on exactly what each of our roles would be, and were in full agreement, doing what each wanted. I would work and run the farm, while she took care of the house and the small family we wanted. I did not marry her to get a “hired man” to work in the barn and fields.

As the times and economic conditions gradually changed over the decades, I realized the old traditional ways would no longer work. My chickens had paid off the mortgage. But soon, the poultry business took a severe hit. Two new words appeared,“Vertical integration” and completely changed the poultry industry. The large feed companies looking to expand their sales, contracted with poultry farmers to grow chickens, usually for broilers or fryers . The company would buy the baby chicks, furnish the feed, and eventually send them to their own processing facilities when they decided the birds were of the right size to suit the markets.

The farmer would supply the buildings and labor. As soon as one batch of chickens were marketed, a new batch would immediately be started and the process repeated over and over. The farmer would receive an agreed upon percentage of their sale value and maybe a bonus for a good job done. Essentially, he was nearly the same as an employee of the feed company. (Where did that free, independent farm life style go???)

Such operations became so efficient, and the companies produced poultry meat so cheaply, that the small independent poultry farmer could no longer compete. (Sound much like Walmart and the smaller independent stores??)

I could see it developing, and I reluctantly cut my chicken business to concentrate my efforts on our dairy.

We began buying purebred Holstein calves, raising them, and gradually replaced our small herd with higher producing stock.

During all my reorganizing and changing over the years, I stuck to my vow never to buy anything except with cash. It was a slow process, but no debt was incurred.

I was not as fond of the dairy business as I was of my first love, chickens, but we kept on. However, before long the traditional family dairy farm business also began to feel the same change as all the other businesses. For us it was time for another adjustment not only in the farm operations, but also, in the family's changing overall situation.

As to the farm, I would have to “go big” to compete with other large expanding farms. 80 to 100 dairy cow farms were replacing 20-25 cow dairies, an ever increasing trend. Alberta and I mulled these things over, day after day, trying to come up possible solutions. Again, I could see “the hand writing on the wall”. The conditions that I had started out with, were gone forever! Face it! We had some decisions to make!

Well, we made them, but not without some emotional turmoil. At first I could see no good way out and now had a wife and three children to support. I became depressed. I talked to a lady in the local employment office about possible jobs, but made no decision.

Alberta worried about my depression, and I started taking “happy pills”. But we finally came up with solutions that satisfied our changing needs. At least there was no hounding by creditors!

My children were not old enough to question our decisions, as other farm families had. So that eliminated one problem. It was just our own decision. We sold our cows and machinery at auction along with part of our land, keeping the house and about 16 acres. We took 6 weeks vacation, a camping trip with tent and 3 kids, and traveled through some neighboring states.

We became more relaxed. We still had our home place to live in, and we took a rational look at our problems. First, I took a job with a farm machinery dealer demonstrating tractors, and later with the farm cooperative, GLF.

I drove back and forth to work each day while looking for another farm to buy nearer Oneida. One reason why we wanted to move in closer was to allow our kids, now approaching school age, to be able to attend what we considered to be the superior quality Oneida school system.

After much searching, we found what we were looking for about 5 miles outside of Oneida, a little over 100 acres with a livable house and other buildings. With the changed conditions and our differing needs, the productive quality of the land became secondary to location. We still had, however, all our requirements for subsistence living, woods, fields, and meadows.

We took our farm sale money and as a down payment paying half of the cost price, mortgaging the rest. Then, we sold our old home back on the hills to a neighboring farmer which he added to his acreage.

From then on, I adjusted my part time farming operations with each changing condition of the economy. At first we continued with our purebred calf raising. We had learned how to produce large, well grown heifers ready for breeding in two years. There was a good market for them. We paid off the rest of the mortgage, and I no longer was “tied down” to the twice-a-day job of milking cows.

However, as I had learned, times were forever changing, and after a few years, I found I was raising young stock “just for fun”. That project was no longer profitable, either! That ended that one! ….......Keep ahead if it!........ Keep ahead!

In the meantime I made a living from my off-farm job, and we still produced much of our food and fuel.

What should I do with the farm?? Grow grain and hay to sell? I did that for a few years, and I usually grew a few acres of oats to sell as a cash crop for our “vacation money”. We called it our “oat money”.

I knew of a reliable father/son neighbor, honest and trustworthy who wanted to rent our land to grow crops for his expanding dairy. We agreed and gave him a free hand to work most of our land as if it were his own. This lasted quite a number of years, as long as he stayed in farming. No written contract, and he brought over the rent money without fail every year at Christmas time. He said, “Probably you could use the money about this time of year”.

Not many years later I took and passed a State Civil Service exam to become a Farm Employment Representative, and commuted to Utica each day while still living on the farm, and growing most of our food and fuel. I liked that job, and had the best of both worlds.

In the beginning paragraphs of this article, I discussed the problem of passing the farm on to younger generations. I have learned that there CANNOT BE as many large farms as there were small farms. There can't be as many Walmarts as there once were independent meat markets and grocery stores. AND, all farms can't be “passed on”.

Ponder this!

The present 80 to 100 cow farms will or have already gone to 500 + cow” milk factories”. The son who takes over, must decide if he will want to commit himself to that type of operation. He will not, for long, be operating the same enterprise as what he and his father have been used to. He will be forced to grow. He would not last long if his costs of production were higher than those of the “big boys”.

However, it doesn't mean you must abandon the home farm and the farm life. It just means you have to change your operations and life style to mesh with the changing times.

Use creative thinking! Parent and child together, can find ways to keep the farm land, or at least part of it. There may be a program that keeps the land from being taxed as city lots. Change the kind of operation with the changing times as you go along. The younger people can think of new operations suitable to their likings. It might mean taking an off-farm job at first, and from there developing your possible full time strategy.

I foresee a resurgence of the “back to the smaller farms” where many farmers grow safe/organic food for themselves and local consumption. A limited amount of locally grown fresh vegetables, at least, and maybe fruit, (berries), and eggs can compete with big chain grocery stores. Of course, there already are “pick your own” crops.

More farms could have a small roadside market. Wouldn't have to be “big”. In each locality there could be more “farmer's markets”.

We have to change our traditional thoughts about the definition of a farm and what it produces, if we want to keep the small, family farm. Some farms operate part time “Bed and Breakfasts” with farm tours on the side. Some have “Fall Festivals” with hayrides and corn mazes. There are maple celebrations in the spring with tours, pancake breakfasts, etc. What other ideas for projects can you young folks think of??. Don't jump into one so large you have to go into debt. Keep your financial skirts clean. Remember that changes are inexorably coming.

Keep with them. Or a bit ahead!

We can still keep farm land and enjoy country living!

C.E.P. Oneida, N.Y. February 2011