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Fields of fatigue

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WORLD Radio - Fields of fatigue

While American farmers age, the next generation faces high barriers to entry


Photo by OlenaMykhaylova/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Farmers. The most recent data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the average American farmer is 57 and-a-half years old. That’s up from just over 50, four decades ago.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: One reason is that it’s quite difficult for farmers approaching retirement to pass the farm off to the next generation. WORLD’s Lauren Canterberry reports.

SOUND: [WALKING ON A FARM]

LAUREN CANTERBERRY, REPORTER: David Bliss is a third-generation farmer in Illinois who has been raising corn and soybeans since he was young.

DAVID BLISS: I graduated from high school in 1956 and my junior year in high school I rented a farm. So I was farming and going to high school at the same time.

When Bliss’s father retired, he took over his family business and grew the farm to 2,000 acres. He eventually expanded to raise cattle and hogs.

SOUND: [COW MOOING]

BLISS: We started out with crops and then we got into some cattle and at my peak I had about a cow herd of about 60 cows and calves and at my peak, I raised 3000 head of hogs a year.

But since then, he’s had to downsize. Now he’s down to about 1,500 acres and no livestock. It’s still huge compared to his father’s farm, but small compared to the farms around him.

At 85 years old, Bliss plans to retire in a few years. His children aren’t planning to take over the farm, so he’ll have to sell and let leases go, even though one of his grandsons is interested in agriculture.

BLISS: He would love to be a farmer but there’s no way that I can extend mine on to him because it’s mostly all rented ground.

The next generation is interested in farming, but young people face significant barriers to entry— high input costs, a stressful work environment, and difficulties finding land, to name a few.

Since 2012, more than 20 million acres of farmland have been repurposed for development and other uses, meaning that aspiring farmers are facing stiff competition to keep farmland going as farmland.

Peyton Sapp is a University of Georgia county extension coordinator for the southeast district.

SAPP: As population grows, land values grow. That puts more pressure on the ag. economy because now you’re paying triple for tractors and double for land.

In 2022, the National Young Farmers Coalition surveyed more than 10,000 farmers age 40 and younger. Nearly half of respondents said trying to fund growth is extremely difficult. And 35 percent said a major challenge is input costs that are higher than their income from products.

SAPP: It’s quite possible to find a younger person interested in farming. Sometimes the reason that they can’t get in and get started is just the sheer expense.

It makes it more risky for young people to get in and folks don't want their kids to face all that.

David Buys is associate professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion at Mississippi State University. He says agriculture is a highly stressful industry as farmers wrestle with unpredictable weather, changing markets, and other factors outside their control.

BUYS: Farmers are very resilient, strong people who have a lot of pride—healthy pride. They’re not going to be the first to say, “we’re struggling, we need help.”

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that farmers, ranchers, and agriculture managers have the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country by occupation.

Buys and his team have partnered with the Spiritual First Aid program from Wheaton College to train communities on how to support farmers.

BUYS: Without healthy farmers, you can’t have healthy farms. And we need healthy farms to ensure that we feed the world. That we clothe the world. We’re a leader in that respect across the world and we don’t want to lose that.

SOUND: [TRACTOR/FARM]

Even as farmers struggle to find someone to take over their business, a few are passing their farms down, but it’s not without challenges. Bill Godowns and his son, Cole, farm 2,500 acres in eastern Georgia where they grow corn, cotton, and peanuts.

GODOWN: We've been very fortunate. My granddad and my dad went into farming. I went into farming, and now I have two sons to follow along behind me.

Cole says he didn’t fully understand the costs until he joined the family business, and he understands why some young people balk. But for the Godowns, the hard work is worth keeping the farm profitable. Even if it stops with Cole.

GODOWN: Working with family’s not always easy but just knowing that Cole just knowing that he wanted to follow on with me, I mean, it’s been, just makes my heart swell.

SOUND: [WALKING ON THE FARM]

WORLD Radio Reporter Mary Muncy contributed on-location sound to this story.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Canterberry.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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