Family farmers look afield

Nearing retirement, some try to sell young outsiders on the occupation that rewarded them - even as it tested their resolve

Gary Fisher and his wife, Sharon, have barely earned a profit from their 2,500-acre corn-and-soybean farm for the past 20 years. For the past five years, they've lost money - and been kept afloat by government subsidies.

Despite the stress of a life where half their net worth is always at risk and the family's finances rest on the weight of a few paychecks, the Fishers are content. For them, farming has been an exercise of mind and body. The farm was the perfect place to raise children, they say, and lead self-sufficient lives.

It's the way of life they hoped to pass down to their offspring. But their children, like those of many other independent farmers here in northwest Iowa, and across the US corn belt, aren't interested.

Their son, Jim Fisher, had farmed full time for six years, and even bought 850 acres from his father. But Jim recently lost his heart for the work, and started a welding business in town.

"He became discouraged by the price of grain and the stress involved," says Mr. Fisher. "I told him to quit the farm and do what he likes to do."

Rather than sell to a multi-farm conglomerate, Fisher contacted Farm-On, an Iowa State University program that links young farmers looking for a start with older farmers nearing retirement.

Six months later, the Fishers have welcomed 26-year-old Ohio native Matthew Siefker into their family.

Their relationship is a test case in whether the independent American farm - an institution that long represented the bedrock of family tradition - will survive.

Like most modern grain farmers, Fisher is studying his computer screen when he isn't in the fields planting, cultivating, and harvesting. He searches radar weather reports for the answer to the question on every farmer's mind: When will the rain come?

This year, rain first came early, delaying the late-April planting season by a month. If rain comes in October, it might turn the harvest into a mudslide. But now, Fisher is praying for rain. Iowa has suffered through a minor drought this summer, and his crops need the nourishment.

Fisher also consults his computer for crop prices. He watches the numbers change daily, although he sells his crop and receives a check only a few times a year. The decision of when to sell is often based largely on intuition.

As a young man, the senior Fisher never doubted that he would take over his family's grain operation. "It was a natural instinct," he says.

Now, there is not much certainty in American agriculture.

The demise of the family farm was diagnosed in the 1980s, when land values sunk and smaller operations went bankrupt. Many of the independent farmers who hung on over the past 20 years are nearing retirement - the average age of Iowa farmers is 53.

Having battled through weather and finances throughout their careers, their current crisis is one of personnel.

An October 2000 study by Iowa State's Beginning Farmer Center shows that farmers are aging and don't have anyone to take over the farms.

The study's key findings:

• More than two-thirds of Iowa's farmland is owned by someone over 65.

• In 1982, 22 percent of farmers were under 35, and 12 percent were over 65. In 1997, however, only 10 percent were under 35 and 22 percent were over 65.

• Two-thirds of Iowa farmers say no one in the family will take over. And only 29 percent have identified a successor.

Mike Duffy, who heads the Farmer Center, credits the fuzzy retirement plans to the fact that farmers' lifestyles often overlap with their work.

These farmers want to retire, but very few want to change their way of life, he says.

In Fisher's case, a desire to perpetuate the farming lifestyle was what sent him searching for a protégé.

"Family farming is the way I grew up. It's a nice lifestyle," says Mr. Fisher. "I like to see independent farmers, not large corporations, operating farms."

Fisher has been aware of programs like Farm On for a decade now. They sprouted up across the Corn Belt in the 1990s to help preserve the nation's tradition of an assortment of small to mid-size crop growers.

A young prospect comes calling

In February, Fisher contacted Matthew Siefker through the Internet after Farm On sent applications from 13 would-be farmers.

The two decided Mr. Siefker would come out to Iowa for 60 days to see if their personalities were compatible. Now, four months later, Siefker is still at work and has planted about 75 percent of Fisher's crop.

"Matt was sincere enough to drive 660 miles to visit," says Fisher. "He was the most mature. He seemed to understand my operation."

And yet Fisher is not certain that he ought to have started Siefker down this track. "You can probably tell I'm conflicted about this," says Fisher, his bushy red eyebrows turning upward with doubt.

He says a person cannot farm without being an optimist, but his financial ledger gives him little reason to believe the next generation of farmers will have an easy life. In July, US farmers received $1.88 per bushel of corn - down from a peak of $4.43 in July 1996.

Yet, like most farmers, Siefker sees reasons to keep working.

He believes that the economic skies will brighten if the government can pry open grain markets in China and the European Union. "I've just accepted it will be tough for a while," says Siefker. "I think things will get better if I can hang in there for 10 years."

Siefker is a self-described workaholic who loves to be out in the fields.

His love of planting drew him away from his father's dairy business in Columbus Grove, Ohio. But he doubted whether he'd ever get the chance to work a large grain farm.

Land values have soared in recent years, putting younger farmers increasingly at a disadvantage, says Mike Duffy of the Beginning Farmer Center.

"The system of agriculture that has evolved is extremely capital intensive," says Mr. Duffy. In this case, Farm On's middleman service has been a new foil.

Still, handing over a farm from one operator to the next is a delicate process.

Fisher is almost ready to retire, but he needs to pace the process. Selling all his assets in one year would draw enormous taxes. The first step, as he sees it, starts with renting Siefker land, which will allow him to generate income and buy his own machinery. Once Siefker has assets, he can more easily secure loans from a bank.

But financing is not the young farmer's only concern. He's also in need of a social life. Putting down roots in Thor, Iowa, won't be easy. Siefker now lives on the first floor of a house in Eagle Grove and attends the Grace Evangelical Free Church in town.

Twelve-hour days on remote farmland have crimped his style somewhat. "I'm still single, trying to make friends out here," says Siefker.

Siefker also appreciates the role of a farm in raising a family. "Raising kids on a farm gives them an appreciation for life. It shows them how things work," says Siefker. "Some urban kids don't know where milk comes from."

Extending the family

The new farmer has much to learn. "The hardest part will be watching the markets, learning the business side of things," says Siefker, who adds that he's not a natural with the ledger, but that he's seen too many farmers fail due to poor business sense.

For now, he's focusing on helping the Fishers prepare for the October harvest. Neither side knows if their relationship will continue over the long term. Handing over something as personal as a farm to someone who four months ago was a perfect stranger is an awkward ceremony.

Common interests have strengthened their bond. Each day, Sharon packs lunch for Siefker. They frequently have him over for dinner, do his laundry, and even gave him a birthday present. "It just feels like family," says Sharon.

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