Down on the farm no more

By the staircase in Johnny and Janice Coder's home hang 21 aged black-and-white photographs: weddings and family gatherings going back six generations.

"They were all in farming, 100 percent," says Mr. Coder proudly, as his wife points to the photos - parents and grandparents and grandparents of grandparents.

Soon that will change.

Besides themselves, only one cousin in their two extended families still farms. And none of the Coders' five children wants to take over their 900 acres of corn and soybeans, just east of Ames, Iowa.

"It's the end of the line for us," says Coder, now in his 50th year of farming and starting to think about retirement.

Across rural America, the Coders' story is a familiar one. Farmers are older on average than ever, and it's not always apparent who will take their place. As their numbers dwindle, operations get bigger and control of the nation's farmland becomes concentrated in fewer hands.

These trends are intensifying a longstanding debate about the future of farming in the developed world. To some, the decline in farm numbers reflects the natural evolution of better technology and a competitive marketplace. To others, it represents a serious threat to rural communities, food supply, and environment.

This week, economists and sociologists at a conference here in Ames discussed how to keep a new generation of Americans on the farm.

"The debate has to be framed around the public good vs. individual benefit," says Paul Lasley, a sociologist at Iowa State University and a speaker at the conference. "Would rural Iowa be better off if we only had half as many farms? Maybe large, fully integrated systems can deliver food cheaper, but we ought to be talking about long-term stability."

Already, the numbers look stark. By 1997 (the latest figures available), the United States had more than three times as many senior farmers (65 and over) as young farmers (35 and under). That's a dramatic shift from 20 years earlier, when the two groups were roughly equal. Similarly, Iowa has seen a huge flip-flop: twice as many seniors tend the land as young farmers - the reverse of the picture 20 years ago.

Several factors explain the change, economists say. Farmers are living longer, and often depend on the farm for their retirement income. Beginning farmers face increasingly tough barriers to acquiring land and becoming profitable.

Tough times on the farm are hardly new, many observers point out. The story of civilization, after all, involves people leaving the land in search of opportunity. "We've gone from having 95 percent of the population on farms to having 5 percent, which allows us to have huge amounts of nonfarm goods and services," says Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Va. "Farms today are larger, but they're still essentially family farms. And they're better managed than they used to be, both for sustainability and for safety of production."

But Professor Lasley - and others - see intrinsic value in having America's food supply in many hands. They point to food security, to shrinking rural towns, to the greater care that goes into a smaller, diversified farm. The challenge: finding the policies to preserve smaller farms, say participants at the Ames conference, sponsored by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

For starters, they say, rethink current farm policies - such as huge subsidies for commodities like corn and soybeans, which tend to encourage the status quo.

For one thing, subsidies over the long run really help landowners, not necessarily farmers, explains Mike Duffy, associate director of the Leopold Center. That's because when subsidies flow to farmers, they tend to buy or rent more land. In the process, they bid up the price of land. "If you're a retiring farmer, that's a good thing," he adds. "But if you're a young farmer, it locks you out of access to the means of production."

Mr. Duffy would like to see the government start paying farmers based on labor rather than commodities, freeing more farmers to grow things other than corn and soybeans, and perhaps find ways to make a profit with fewer acres.

Others suggest redirecting some of the commodities payments toward encouraging farmers to invest in private pensions, allowing them to retire earlier and be less dependent on their land for income.

More new farmers may have to think about holding an off-farm job, and start focusing on creative marketing as much as learning when to plant, Duffy says.

That's the way Don Adams and Nan Bonfils approached it. Mr. Adams might be called a "U-turn farmer" - someone who came back to the land at a much later age. A longtime outdoor educator, he met Ms. Bonfils in Kenya and married her in Singapore. Ten years ago, they came to the farm where Mr. Adams grew up in Madrid, Iowa. He sees the 300-acre operation - where his 92-year-old father still works - as an opportunity to try some new ideas.

"We look at it as an organism," Adams says, noting that they grow the feed for their livestock and use the manure and compost to fertilize their land, appropriately called Full Circle Farm.

Now their products include timber, grass-fed beef and lamb, organic vegetables, and eggs, mostly sold directly to consumers or through the local co-op grocery store in Ames.

The couple still isn't certain what the future of their farm is - perhaps partnering with somebody else once they're ready to retire in 10 years, or creating a land trust if they can't find anyone. But they're convinced that their way of farming is one of the few viable routes for new farmers.

"The only way a beginning farmer can get established is to come in small and produce food directly for a consumer," Adams says.

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