Tilling Soil in America Remains a Family Affair

Laurie Benjamin throttles her tractor and swings down onto a freshly harrowed field, scanning the horizon for rain.

Dressed in her boots and work clothes, Mrs. Benjamin looks like a seasoned farmer. But it was only three years ago that the college graduate quit her job at a local newspaper to drive a tractor. Now, she says, she could not be happier.

"I share the commitment to keeping the land," she says, pulling off her gloves and brushing back a loose strand of blonde hair. In front of her stretches a cornfield on the Benjamin family's five-generation farm, 600 acres of rich, rolling land in central Illinois.

Despite frequent reports of its demise, the family farm remains overwhelmingly in the hands of American families. Its survival and even prosperity in the 1990s is due, in part, to the unwavering dedication and ingenuity of a generation of young couples like the Benjamins.

"The family farm is remarkably resilient," says Luther Tweeten, a farm economist at Ohio State University in Columbus. "Despite challenges, I expect it to be the dominant type of farm in America to the year 2000 and beyond."

Families, including extended kin, own 99 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farms and control 98 percent of farm acres, according to the 1992 US Census of Agriculture. In addition, family farms generate more than 90 percent of gross farm sales and cash income. The efficiency of family farms has limited inroads by corporate industry, analysts say. "Family farms are holding their own," reports the US Agriculture Department (USDA).

Mrs. Benjamin and her husband, George, personify one important reason for the continuing vigor of family farms: As older farmers retire, there is a sizable group of operators in their 30s or younger that is committed to living on the land.

Although the average age of farmers has slowly risen in recent decades to reach 53 in 1992, the proportion of operators under 35 (11 percent), is only slightly lower than 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, the historic exodus of population from rural areas to cities and towns has slowed considerably compared with the 1950s and '60s. The farm population is expected to fall by less than 45,000 people per year in the 1990s, compared with 741,000 annually in the 1950s.

The Benjamins also illustrate how even those farming families that face the greatest economic pressure - those with small- or medium-sized holdings - are coming up with creative strategies to survive and, sometimes, thrive.

Smaller farms are still losing ground as labor-saving technology and economies of scale make big farms more profitable, but they are shutting down at a slower rate than in the '50s and '60s, the Census of Agriculture shows.

No chickens or cows

Of course life for the Benjamin's generation bears little resemblance to the often romanticized image of a family farm: a small, diversified, and largely self-sufficient mom-and-pop operation with a vegetable garden, chickens and cows.

"Today's agriculture is a very commercial business. The idea of Ma and Pa Kettle down on the farm no longer exists," says Randy Winter, chairman of the agriculture department at Illinois State University in Bloomington.

Laurie and George Benjamin say competitive pressures are dramatically transforming life on their McLean County farm compared with the traditional farming households they grew up in.

First, because the profitability of farms increases markedly with their size, the Benjamins must constantly look for ways to expand their acreage to try to attain an average US income.

In Illinois, the return on assets for the largest farms (1,200 acres or more) is now double that of medium-sized farms (300-600 acres) and 10 times that of the smallest ones (300 acres or less), says David Lins of the Center for Agricultural Finance at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Making a buck

Today, Midwestern corn and soybean farmers like the Benjamins must till at least 900 acres of land and generate sales of $280,000 - more than double the amounts needed in 1976 - to earn the median US income.

Yet farmland is rarely for sale, since most owners hold onto it for sentimental reasons and as an investment. Instead, the Benjamins and other farmers must lease extra parcels of land. Increasingly, this is through impersonal "cash rent" arrangements. Unlike "share rent" deals, which split the crop and expenses, "cash rent" requires the lessee to pay the landlord a set amount and shoulder all the risk of growing and marketing the crops.

"It's kind of scary because with cash rents you risk a substantial loss in income. Some farmers have already gone bankrupt," says Mr. Benjamin, who share rents land from his aunt, father and mother.

Another way smaller farms are surviving today is by relying heavily on income earned off the farm. Small commercial farms with annual revenues of $100,000 to $250,000 earn, on average, half their household income from off-farm sources. Off-farm earnings drop to only a quarter of annual income for big commercial farms, according to the USDA.

In McLean County, the majority of farmers do some work off the farm; for more than 20 percent of them, off-farm work fills more than 200 days of the year. In contrast, regions like the Dakotas with fewer off-farm job opportunities have seen small farms fail at a faster rate.

Outside jobs often provide farming families with essential benefits such as health-care insurance that are costly for them to buy individually.

"Almost all the wives we know work off the farm," says Mrs. Benjamin, recalling how friends rolled their eyes three years ago when she decided to give up her job and benefits to work on the farm and raise her two young children.

But Mrs. Benjamin's three-year stay on the farm has been a luxury that has been a drain on the couple's savings. Next year, when her children are both in school, she expects to have to return to some sort of off-farm work.

"Even if you're the best farmer in the world, you can only do so well with so many acres," she says.

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