Older Farmers Seem To Be In No Hurry To Call It Quits

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Farmers are getting older. In the last census taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 25 percent of farm operators were more than 65 years old. Neighbors and younger farmers would like to have their land. But for a variety of reasons, it's hard to convince an older farmer to give it up.

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Across the United States, the average farmer is now 57 years old, and more farmers are working long past retirement age. Older farmers are more likely than others to own their land, and that leaves many neighbors and younger farmers waiting to see if and when they'll let go of it. But older farmers seem to be in no hurry to move on. Here's Grant Gerlock, from NET News in Nebraska.

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GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: Bob Hawthorn is standing in the back of a red pickup in an open field, on a windy April afternoon in Iowa's Loess Hills. This is where he farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans, and he's eager to get his crop into the ground. Hawthorn is 84 years old. His hands are worn from all those years of hard work. And he gets annoyed when his neighbors ask just how long he plans to continue that.

BOB HAWTHORN: And they keep bugging me. They say, oh, when you going to quit? I think I'll tell them I won't quit farming till all hell freezes over, or something like that.

GERLOCK: Longevity runs in the family. Hawthorn's father, Fred, farmed into his 90s, and lived to be 98. It appears the Hawthorn family farm will eventually change hands. Hawthorn never married and has no children, so then no one is lined up to take over this operation. Of course, Hawthorn has no plans to quit, either.

HAWTHORN: I'd be bored not having anything to do. And I've also noticed that farmers, when they retire and buy a house in town and move into town, they die of a heart attack about - the next year. It seems like farmers have to keep going active, or they just fade away.

GERLOCK: Working beyond traditional retirement age is a national trend. Last year, 5 percent of the U.S. workforce was 65 or older. But compare that to 25 percent of farmers past retirement age. Iowa State agricultural economist Mike Duffy says one reason is that farm work these days involves more brain than brawn.

MIKE DUFFY: It's more, you use your mind rather than your back so you can go longer.

GERLOCK: And older farmers have a financial incentive to keep farming. Grain prices have reached record highs in recent years and in some parts of the country, land values have doubled.

But Michelle Soll, a responder at the Nebraska Rural Hotline, says for many farmers, it's more than that. She says the land and the work become part of their personal identity, of just who they are.

MICHELLE SOLL: You know, they're just so used to that daily work ethic, and it's tough for them to actually walk away. And there's - some people who just say, I'm going to do this until I die.

GERLOCK: So while older farmers don't quit, many also don't plan ahead either. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist in rural Iowa, and a retired farmer himself. He says studies show more than half of aging farmers don't even have a will or an estate plan. We're talking about farms where the land is worth more than $8,000 per acre, making the average Iowa farm worth around $3 million.

MIKE ROSMANN: And I think it reflects perhaps a denial of the fact that somebody's got to take over, and I need to have a plan for that.

GERLOCK: In the meantime, for those coveting the land, it could be a long wait. In Iowa, nearly a third of farmland belongs to people over 75. That means farmers like Bob Hawthorn hold a big piece of the future of farming. Ag economist Mike Duffy says a new generation is ready to work the land, but may have a hard time getting a hold of it.

DUFFY: We aren't short of young people that want to farm. We're short of old people who want to move over.

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GERLOCK: As Bob Hawthorn steers his tractor and corn planter through the field in a cloud of dust, he knows his neighbors are watching closely, to see when he'll move over and make room for them.

HAWTHORN: And when I look overhead, I see a lot of vultures circling and descending on me. They can't wait until I retire, I die, or become physically or mentally incompetent to run the farm, so they can get their greedy hands on my farmland.

GERLOCK: Hawthorn does wonder what will happen to this farm. It's been in his family since the 1870s. Whose hands will work it next? That's a question he and lots of older farmers don't seem ready to answer - not just yet.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.

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GREENE: Grant Gerlock reports from Nebraska for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture reporting project involving nine NPR member stations in the Midwest. Tomorrow, we're going to hear how younger farmers are taking a different approach to working the land.

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