MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Farmers usually fare about the same as everyone else in a recession, and that goes for farmers nearing retirement. But today, some older farmers are doing okay.
NPR's Howard Berkes explains in his first of two reports on retirement in rural areas.
HOWARD BERKES: Decades ago, Dan and Lorna Wilson of Paullina, Iowa, bought the farm, which in slang terms is not a good thing at all. But in reality, buying the farm and adding farmland now seem like brilliant moves for retirement.
Mr. DAN WILSON (Hog Farmer): Farmland today has doubled in value what it was 10 years ago.
Ms. LORNA WILSON (Hog Farmer): We bought our first 80 acres for, like, $998 or something. And now, today, it'd be probably worth $4,000 an acre. I mean, there's land around here that sold for, what, what's the high price? Nine...
Mr. WILSON: $9,000.
Ms. WILSON: $9,000.
BERKES: And up the road in Cylinder, Iowa, 69-year-old farmer, Linus Solberg, recalls the advice that makes his upcoming retirement seem more secure.
Mr. LINUS SOLBERG (Farmer): Well, I had a landlord from Illinois that come up and told me about 40 years ago, he said, Linus, there's only so much land in the world. Instead of putting a lot of money in stocks, he said, invest it in land. And that's what Patty and I have done. That's our retirement.
BERKES: Now, farmland values have dipped a bit lately, notes 57-year-old hog farmer, Dan Wilson. And home and real estate prices elsewhere have plunged.
Mr. WILSON: But the thing about farmland, it's still producing income. As long as it can keep producing the crop and the crop's worth something, it's a good thing to own.
BERKES: And crops and the corn and soybean belt in the Midwest have been worth plenty, according to Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University in Omaha. Plus, there are all those wind turbines going up on farms.
Dr. ERNIE GOSS (Regional Economics, Creighton University): Corn prices, soybean prices, wheat prices, all those have been pretty strong until very recently. And that, of course, has been supported also by renewable energy production. I mean, you've got a heck of a lot of wind energy production tied, to a large extent, to agriculture, but also biofuel production - ethanol. So, all that pulled together has been very favorable.
BERKES: So Midwest farmers invested in land instead of 401(k)s are still on track for retirement, so far. There's still some risk, and that's illustrated in a wind-blown feed yard at Dan Wilson's hog farm.
(Soundbite of hogs)
BERKES: In denim overalls and a floppy hat, Wilson wades through two dozen massive and hungry hogs who know the routine. And he obliges with buckets of organic feed poured into steel troughs. That quiets the porkers.
Mr. WILSON: These are producing for the organic market. In the end, we're producing for the Whole Foods Market.
BERKES: The organic feed these hogs munch has a premium price, as do the hogs themselves from farm to market. So, if the recession deepens and persists, well, here's how Dan and Lorna Wilson explained it around their kitchen table.
Mr. WILSON: Anything that shrinks the organic food market would have an impact on us.
BERKES: And what might that be?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I think if people have less disposable income, it's much more tempting to buy cheap food.
Ms. WILSON: That's our reality. You know, that if they choose not to choose organic, we have no control over that.
BERKES: But that's your retirement.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILSON: Yeah. In essence, yeah.
BERKES: Diminishing value in the things land produces diminishes value in land. And that's true for livestock, crops or ethanol. But so far, it seems that Midwestern farmers who are close to retirement and who invested in farmland made the right choice.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
BLOCK: Tomorrow, Howard takes us into town where prospects are not as bright for some rural workers close to retirement.
You can see a photo gallery of Dan and Lorna Wilson on their farm and hear other stories about rethinking retirement at npr.org.
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