A new way to buy the farm

One of the big changes in farming over the next decade may be the number of people getting out of the business. It’s not because of an economic crisis, since most farmers are making good profits these days. Rather, the driver for the trend is age. The average age of U.S. farmers is about 57 years old. That means there’s a many farmers in their 60’s, 70’s and yes, even 80-plus who may be looking for other things to do. At the same time there are a lot of young people with an interest in agriculture who are looking for someone to swing open a farm gate for them.

A coalition of farm groups have created an internet site they hope will bring the two groups together. It’s at farmtransitions.org. The site’s goal is to match retiring farmers with someone who’s interesting in taking over the operation, according to John Mesko, executive director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. Mesko says many farmers sell their land to the highest bidder when it’s time to exit the business. However, he says there are some farmers who, besides being interested in a good price, also have other issues in mind when they leave the farm. They may want to turn the operation over to someone who matches up with them closely in general farming philosophy – things like what sorts of crops to grow, or what types of livestock are raised on the farm. But Mesko says while many farmers want a say in who succeeds them, they often wait too long to start that process.

“Unfortunately sometimes there’s a health issue, and something needs to be done right now”, said Mesko.

The most common solution then is often a quick sale to the highest bidder. Mesko says transitioning a farm can take years. He says the new website will help farmers get started on that before a crisis forces action. For the farm hopefuls, it will have tests to help the individual figure out if his/her vision of farming is practical.

“There’s an awful lot of romance to the idea of becoming a farmer,” said Mesko. “So we have folks determine, are these goals realistic?”

Mesko says one model of successful farm transition he’s seen work involves dairy farms. The interested buyer may at first just work for the hopeful retiree. Then the beginner may buy a few cows, leasing the mentor’s equipment to milk them. The hopeful farmer may gradually buy more of the farm’s equity, until the person is able to accumulate enough capital and lending power to buy the farm.