Young farmers say hardest part is finding land

Josh Norris, 31, is making his dream of farming a reality, gradually building his land base, controlling his expenses and doing custom farming on the side to bring in added income.

“This year, I made it a priority to seek out more custom work, and that seems to be a good way to try and cash-flow my operation,” the Caldwell, Idaho, farmer said. “That helps me grow — and pay for the equipment required to start up.”

Providing other farmers with services like planting, discing, roller-harrowing and plowing works for Norris because the 235 leased acres he farms are spread across six smaller parcels he must drive to anyway — and it helps him scout for land he can add to his operation.

“The land that comes up for lease for a beginning farmer is not the most high-quality ground,” he said. “I have given up lower-quality fields to pick up better ground, and that is just a constant process each year.”

Land: No. 1 issue
Land access is the No. 1 challenge facing farmers and ranchers younger than 40, according to a national survey. Participants in the National Young Farmers Coalition survey pegged it as the top issue regardless of location or whether they grew up on a farm or ranch. Land, and access to it, outranked all other concerns, including financial.

“And land access is the number-one reason farmers are quitting agriculture, and the number-one reason preventing farmers from getting started,” said Holly Rippon-Butler, the coalition’s land-access program director.

USDA’s newest Census of Agriculture “illustrates and illuminates the fact that farmers are getting older, and land succession and land transition are more and more of an issue,” said Rogue Farm Corps Executive Director Stu O’Neill.

The Ashland, Ore.-based nonprofit matches starting producers with experienced farmers and ranchers who mentor them. It helps new farmers find affordable land through innovative tools such as easements that can provide retirement income and reduce land costs. The organization also educates retiring farmers about succession planning possibilities that can open the door for younger farmers.

The organization provides new farmers with training and support, and is involved in farmland preservation.

Rogue in 2017 co-authored a study that found up to two-thirds of Oregon farmland is expected to change hands in the next 20 years as farmers retire. While that might provide an opportunity for a first-generation operator to take over a farm, it also has to pencil out.

“We have been exploring helping to facilitate farmland and farm business transactions outside the family,” O’Neill said.

Informal network
In southwest Idaho, Norris is part of an informal network of farmers who help each other. On a referral from farmer Spencer McIntyre, Norris planted a field for Miguel Villafana, who works for an ag lender full-time and recently started a small farm in the Wilder-Homedale area.

Also on a referral, Villafana worked with crop consultant Tad Baker.

“I work with a few young farmers, some bigger than others,” Baker said. “They do a pretty good job for the most part, and they’re not afraid to ask questions. A lot of the younger guys are willing to try new things.”

He has helped young farmers decide what to grow — taking soil samples, for example — and make the best use of ever-changing pest- and weed-control chemistries.

“It’s expensive to get started, and the other problem is that we are getting so many big farmers taking up so much land — it is really hard to compete,” Baker said.

Some landowners are willing to work with small-scale farmers, including leasing land to them, he said. Another option for the small producer is to grow a crop on contract for a larger grower who leases the ground, as he saw fairly often when he worked in Washington state.

Starting out
Norris, whose father is a farmer, started out by leasing 27 acres. Now in his sixth year, he is looking to add to his current total of 235 acres.

“It has almost been a necessity to try and pick up new ground,” he said. “I have just tried to get my name out there to neighbors and other farmers over the years, and I have gradually picked up a few more acres each year.

“When I started farming, I thought in 5 to 10 years I would be established,” Norris said. “I am seeing now that it is going to be a long, slow progression.”

After college, Norris in 2012 returned to the family farm to fill in for his father’s longtime farmhand, who retired. “In the course of one year, I went from part-time to full-time, and then trying to lease my own ground.

“When I decided to go on my own, it was my responsibility to find my own ground,” he said.

His wife, Melissa, who does not come from an ag background, keeps the books and helps move equipment from one field to another when needed. They have three young children — who at 2, 3 and 5 aren’t old enough to help, but “they try to,” Norris said. “They get to go on tractor rides once in a while.”

McIntyre, 31, for the past seven years has brokered commodities, mainly forage. He grows seed on his Marsing-area farm of about 200 acres, which he aims to expand threefold in the next two years.

But land availability “has been the biggest struggle, finding ground to lease,” he said. Though he grew up in a well-known farming family, “doing business on my own, people are still hesitant because they have done business with Joe down the street for 40 years, and he is doing just a good enough job to keep it.”

McIntyre has solid financial footing. “The problem is not as much financial as it is finding land,” he said.

“It is now extremely difficult to find just farmground, because of all the development,”  Villafana, 28, said, adding that he views capital as another hurdle for young farmers.

This year, he found land to lease: 21 acres on which he grew pivot-irrigated corn. He and his wife, Camas, also bought 33 acres including the 1-acre homesite they have lived on since April, financing the purchase through a lender other than his employer, by policy.

They leased the 32 acres of irrigated farmland to another farmer, “but we will be farming it next year,” said Villafana, who grew up working on a large potato farm in eastern Idaho. “This is really good farmground.”

A grain crop is likely for 2020, “but down the road, the dream is to grow potatoes for local processors, and sugar beets,” he said.

What to grow
Figuring out what to grow can be daunting even for an experienced farmer, McIntyre said.

“When no one else has tried it, you get nervous,” he said. “Or it’s different than the neighbor’s” crops.

Brody Miller, who coordinates the Idaho Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program, said land availability recently has been part of larger discussions about how newer producers can operate in an environment of continued low commodity prices.

Veterans on county Farm Bureau boards and YF&R committees can help newer producers with what to grow and how, and with operational viability, for example.

“Does it make sense financially to travel 50 miles to go irrigate?” Miller said. “Participants are very savvy, and very in touch with technology and best practices. At the small scale, you’ve got to be as efficient as possible.”

In addition to crop consultants, sources of advice include accountants and financial planners who specialize in farming, and small business development centers at community and four-year colleges around the region.

Complex decisions
Purdue University agricultural economist Michael Gunderson said that while capital constraints and asset-acquisition challenges are substantial, they aren’t unique to production agriculture and “are not as large as people would like to think.”

“As they get started, renting is an option — not just land but renting equipment, using used equipment, and partnering with others long-term on equipment,” he said.

Nevertheless, “farmer decision-making is more complex than it was a generation or two ago,” Gunderson said. “Today, our most successful farms are complex enough that they require CEO-type thinking.”

The Idaho Farm Bureau’s Miller said YF&R participation is consistently strong and is not subject to a headcount maximum. New and experienced producers thus stay connected and keep learning about starting, maintaining and growing ag operations.

O’Neill said Rogue Farm Corps, which operates in four areas of Oregon, in the past seven years went from serving a handful of students to offering 30 to 40 internships and apprenticeships annually on 15 to 20 farms. Over the same period, many other new-farmer training programs have also started around the U.S., through nonprofits and land-grant universities and their extension services.

Rogue mentors include older producers who are retiring and first-generation operators who want to pass along the knowledge experienced producers gave them, he said.

Norris said networking with producers and others in the industry is still the key.

“I absolutely would not be here if I weren’t willing to do that,” he said.