Mitchell Smith couldn’t imagine spending his life doing anything other than what his ancestors have done for the past seven generations – farm.
“When I really thought about it, there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do,” the 22-year-old said. “This was the only thing that felt right.”
Smith gained a passionate respect for farming as a kid, taking on responsibilities at his family’s farm that he plans to keep for the rest of his life.
But not all farm children share his desire.
The average age of a farmer has steadily increased in the past 100 years, while the number of young farmers continues to dwindle.
In 1900, half of all farmers in the United States were younger than 45 years old. But in 2012, the most recent study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture found those under 45 years of age accounted for only about 16 percent of farmers.
“They don’t want to go into it anymore because of the risk, the amount of money, and the economics of farming,” said Lon Wright, a dairy and commodity grain farmer in Delaware County.
Wright, who’s now 60, has lived and worked at the same homestead where his grandparents planted roots. He tills the same land as his grandfather and hoped his children would follow.
But of 22 children in the extended family’s next generation, only Wright’s son decided to stay on the farm. “Everybody else has found different jobs with less work time,” Wright said.
The youngest of those include his brother’s three daughters, none of whom have interest in working with the family business.
“You just can’t get kids anymore that want to help,” Wright said. “They don’t want to work very much. They can work at McDonalds.”
Because of the scarcity of help, Wright had to invest in expensive equipment that would make up the work young people could do. Work that he and his brothers can no longer do by their own strength.
“We’re getting old,” Wright said. “I’m 60, and my brother is 63. He’s just tired. He’s worn out.”
Andrew Bahrenburg of the National Young Farmers Coalition said that convincing the next generation to stick to farming is a challenge.
“I think for a lot of our young [people] who grew up on farms, it’s partly about convincing them that this is still a viable career path,” said Andrew Bahrenburg of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
He noted that one of the biggest challenges faced by would-be farmers is the rising expense of making a living off the land.
“Things have changed dramatically over the past several decades in agriculture,” Bahrenburg said. “Land prices have doubled, student loan debt is a much bigger problem among young people than it was for generations past, and there are just fewer and fewer farms in the U.S.”
Keeping children involved in family farms is paramount to the future of the industry, Bahrenburg added.
“When you have a break in the family succession of the farm, you risk losing a tremendous amount of generational transfer of knowledge,” he said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around what could be lost if this retiring generation of farmers leaves the industry without being able to mentor the next.”
Smith wonders whether the demands of farming drive many farm kids to pursue other careers.
“It’s not always the most comfortable lifestyle,” he admitted. “There are ups and downs, long hours and not fun times. There are plenty of days where I’d like to sleep in longer than I do.”
But Smith said he’s willing to make those sacrifices.
“Yeah, it’s challenging, but at the same time it’s rewarding. And that’s a big reason why I stayed.”
The young farmer said he plans to keep working until he can’t, just like his grandfather.
“He’s 72 and probably the first one up every morning. He works there with us all day,” Smith said. “Hopefully, when I’m that age, I’ll have a son and a grandson that are still working here.”