The Planted Row: Advice for a beginning farmer

Stan Wise Farm Forum Editor
Farm Forum

The average age of an American farmer is 58 years old and slowly but steadily growing older. That troubling fact says something about the number of young people who choose to farm for a living.

We all know the barriers to entry into agriculture are very difficult to overcome these days. My father once showed me an article from circa 1950 that outlined exactly what to do to provide for a family on 40 acres of land. I’m not sure that’s really feasible anymore.

With stiff competition for access to land, high land prices and rents, expensive equipment and very steep input costs, it is no easy feat to start your own operation in your late teens and early 20s when your access to capital is limited.

But sometimes, some brave, young soul decides to defy the odds and start his (or her) own farm. Recently, a 20-year-old man posted in a Facebook group called Southern Farming that he was starting to farm on his own this year and asked for advice from the other farmers in the group.

Farmers of all ages weighed in.

Some of them tried to be funny, warning the young man to never get married, or better yet, marry a farmer’s daughter or a woman with a good job in town. One warned that it “takes a good job to keep a farm going.” Another responder suggested the young farmer go to college and get a desk job so that he wouldn’t be crippled by the time he is 45. One jester said, “Relax, go to the field on time, don’t worry about your business, everyone in town will take care of that for you.”

Many other responses stressed the importance of being timely in his operation. As one farmer so succinctly put it, the No. 1 rule to farming is to never “let the bad years be your fault.”

Others noted how hard the young farmer would need to work hard, admonishing him to cancel all his planned vacations. One farmer said simply, “Work hard. Work late. Work when everyone else is at the beach.”

Most of the responders tried to offer advice that would really help the new farmer. The most common response encouraged him to diversify his operation, avoid buying new equipment and instead use older, cheaper equipment until he could afford to upgrade. Someone even offered advice on how to make his equipment purchases: “When you buy equipment, if your first offer doesn’t embarrass you, it’s not low enough.”

The responders seemed split on the idea of hired farm workers. Some told him to avoid them, and some told him to make sure to hire quality farm hands. The general consensus was that he should do as much of the work as could himself, but if he was forced to hire help, he should remember this bit of wisdom: “A good right-hand man can make you money, but one bad one can cost you everything.”

Many weighed in and stressed the importance of finding a source of good information. Some said to make use of the internet. Others said to become friends with successful farmers and listen to their advice. Still others stressed the importance of trusting university research and knowledgeable Extension personnel.

Experienced farmers suggested that the young man should find a good lender and make sure he communicates with the lender often, stressing that a good lender “can help you more than you know.”

The Facebook tractor jockeys did right by their new compatriot and tried to give him the principles he would need to grow his farm. However, one farmer gave what I think is the most honest piece of advice of all.

He said simply, “If you don’t enjoy every bit of it — quit.”