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Farmers-to-be can't afford the fields

Rising costs are keeping a new generation from tilling the soil in the heartland.

By Richard MertensContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 2005


Todd Weitekamp longs to work with tractors and machinery, to get dirty, to watch plants grow. Strong, clean-cut, and amiable, he grew up in the Illinois countryside baling hay, tending cattle, and "walking the beans" - trudging down long rows of soybeans, yanking weeds.

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Mr. Weitekamp wants nothing more than the opportunity to farm. But he spends his days driving the flat highways and dusty back roads of central Illinois as the representative of an Iowa seed company, happy to be close to farming and yet endlessly reminded of what lies beyond his reach: land.

"The price of farmland has just been skyrocketing the past few years," he says. "It makes it very hard for anybody to get into farming."

The dark prairie soils of central Illinois grow some of the world's finest corn and soybeans. They also command steeply rising prices, inflated in part by investors who snap up farmland across the Midwest. While rising prices are good for older landowners, whose land may represent a life's savings, they make breaking into the farming business tougher than ever and are the most recent of many developments that are putting a way of life at risk.

Farmland, like other real estate, is appreciating throughout the country. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported in May that farmland values in the region rose an average of 10 percent over the preceding year and as much as 14 percent in some states, including Illinois.

Steven Ford, a farm-loan manager for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Normal, Ill., says he's seen fewer and fewer aspiring farmers. The FSA loans money to farmers whose circumstances make it difficult to borrow from a bank.

"A couple years ago ... prices were maybe $3,500 an acre," Mr. Ford says. "At this point they're $4,500 an acre or more. It's definitely dropped off to minimal interest." Those farmers who come in find their hopes dashed when Mr. Ford reveals what their payments would be.

But the consequences of the land boom go well beyond personal disappointment. People concerned about the fate of rural America worry that fewer beginning farmers will only hasten the decline of farming communities.

"We're already having trouble in the churches," says Todd Stewart, an organic farmer in Norfolk, Neb. "Every year we lose more than we gain. It's the same way with businesses and with schools. And a lot of it goes back to the fact that no young farmers are going into farming."

Most young farmers don't start out by buying "ground," as it's called across the Corn Belt. Usually they rent it until they can save enough to buy. But rising land values are driving rents to prohibitive levels, too.

Erik Christian, a 23-year-old agronomy graduate from Storm City, Iowa, says he's frustrated by a reluctance to take new farmers seriously. "I've talked to everyone and his brother to see if they have any ground to rent," he says. "You never hear back from them."

To be sure, people are still becoming farmers. But most are the sons and daughters of farm families who benefit from their parents' land, equipment, and connections. Yet even for them, say experts, land prices can make it harder to enlarge an operation and make it support two families instead of one.

A more subtle change is also thwarting new farmers. Until recently, many farmers rented land on shares, splitting their crops with the landowner. Sharecropping helped ease new farmers into the business because it required less money up front and spread out the risk. But in recent years landlords, increasingly absent, are insisting on riskier cash rents.