ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
To dream the impossible dream.
That might be a young person wanting to go into farming but without parents who are farming or a million dollars in his or her pocket.
Given today’s high capital demand agriculture and low returns, most experts and nonexperts would agree the American dream doesn’t really extend to a young person going into farming without tremendous financial backing.
Yet there are those doing it-or wanting to do it.
Casey Bartel, at 14 years old, is at the beginning of what he is determined to become-a farmer. And Joe Smucker, at 41 years old, has a livestock operation and counts the spiritual rewards as perhaps better than money.
Even with the differences in their age, both would be counted young in an occupation where 55 is still on the early side of middle age. They also share the experience of having parents who were raised as farm kids when they weren’t.
Jane Lieb is farm loan manager for the Farm Service Agency, an organization that combines the operations of the old ASCS and Farmers Home Administration offices. Lieb comes to the Marion FSA office once a month or as demand indicates.
In the former FmHA, and still as things stand now, she would be a lender of last resort or the beginning financier for young farmers with few resources.
She doesn’t necessarily count a young person out who would want to farm without having parents in the business.
“Nothing is impossible,” she said. “But it would be extremely, extremely difficult to the point of being almost impossible.
“We can make loans to people with no down-payment. To be considered by us as a beginning farmer for a loan to buy real estate, he would have to have a minimum of three years of experience in farming that includes management, some decision making.
“Hopefully he would have some money built up. To make it, one or the other of the spouses would need to be working a non-farm job to
provide the family with living
“Someone like this needs to get as much farm experience as possible. Work for other farmers. Get some experience in management. Start a cow herd, or rent a field to plant while working for a farmer. They need to do what they have to do to get some kind of proven record behind them.
“This agency does make youth loans for a maximum of $5,000, usually for people involved in FFA or 4-H, to do something like get a few cows or buy a piece of equipment as long as they can show repayment ability.
“They’ll have to get financial experience, and they may go through some very difficult times operating on a small scale to get started. Can they come to us for business counseling on getting
started? You bet.
“They need to understand that it’s tough even for established farmers to make it.”
It’s so tough that Rickey Roberts, Marion County agricultural agent, said he doesn’t hold out much hope for somebody starting with nothing to become a full-time farmer.
“It’s just about impossible,” he said. “Realistically, it can’t be done. The inputs for farming are just way, way high.
“Now there are good opportunities for young people in agriculture. But to start like that in farming, they’d have to work full time somewhere else just to make a living while they did it.
“I’d say they’d have to get involved working for a good farmer somewhere. Learn some management practices.
“The cost of land is so prohibitive. There’s no way to pay $800, $900 or $1,000 an acre for ground, and pay for it with livestock. As far as cropland, I don’t know how they would do it with just buying the ground and getting the equipment, or how they would get the credit to do it. The input costs-tillage, herbicide, fertilizer, seed, harvesting-all that already makes it really tough if the rain doesn’t come at the right time or you buy irrigation. All these variable inputs make it not very profitable.
“When you have the long-term fixed costs on top of it, that’s why the big farmers are making it and the little farmers aren’t. It takes ground to buy ground.
“When you think about rural America though, we need agriculture to get profitable for it to prosper. That’s what we need for small towns too because it’s a healthy agriculture that drives their economies. We need it to happen. Government needs to work on the export market, and we need more value added products to get as much profit as we can get.”
It’s that best of rural America the guys who would be farmers are looking for.
Casey Bartel’s father, Marlin, works for a farm-implement dealer, and his mother, Cheryl, is a nurse.
“As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a farmer,” he said. “I’ve worked on the farm (west of Hillsboro) with my dad, and I worked quite a bit with my grandpa, Johnnie Bartel. He’s been gone two years now.
“I rode around with him when he checked the fields and the cattle. I rode with him on the tractor.
“My uncle’s a farmer, Ron Bartel, and I’ve worked for him in the summer. I worked up stubble ground.
“What I’d really like to be is a cattle rancher. I have one cow by myself, and I help my dad with 45 cow-calf pairs, Simmental-black cross.
“I own my own tractor, a 1940s Farmall H and a pickup.
“I’m partners with my brother (Eric, 17) on 15 pigs and a sow.
“I’m getting started a little bit at a time. I’d like to keep expanding my cow herd. I’d like to buy land some day.”
As a high school freshman this year, Bartel has joined FFA, and attends meetings.
He said, “I know I have a lot to learn.”
Has anybody told him it might be difficult to farm, or that relatives might have to give him a helping hand sometime?
“I know it’s expensive, but I think I can do it,” he replied.
Smucker, meanwhile, grew up in Oklahoma City and went away to Bethel College in 1980. He said he got most of his early impressions of farming on grandparents’ farms in Ohio, where his parents grew up.
His wife, Barb Goering, grew up on a farm near Moundridge.
“While I was in college I usually worked for farmers or custom cutters in the summers,” he said. “I was totally ignorant. If a farmer told me to take a tractor and hook up a drill, I didn’t know what to do.
“After we’d been married a couple of years we decided to look for a place in the country, a place for a garden, fruit trees, a few acres to be self-sufficient on. We didn’t set out to farm.
“In 1987 some friends told me about this place (near Goessel) with 28 acres, an old house, a barn and outbuildings. In 1987 you could find a place like that for not as much money as now.
“After that, it was a real gradual process. I bought three bred ewes, had lambs, gradually built fence and small corrals. I just kept adding on, keeping the best sheep, and now we’re up to 30 ewes.
“I bought more pasture in the next quarter-section to us. I started buying cows, eight of them, 16 here total with calves and yearlings. I began complementary grazing with the sheep and cattle, improving pasture grazing two species.
“I rotate animals now on our 85 acres to give pastures rest. I’d like to get up to 10 or 12 cows, and then that’s enough for what we’re trying to do.
“I plant any tillable land to grass or alfalfa, perennials to support livestock everywhere, and don’t do grain crops.
“I have a 1949 Farmall H, a mower, rake and baler to put up small square baled hay.
“We get some big round bales done by other guys. We have so many little farms in this area that neighbors will do custom work to help pay for machinery. Some of our friends in other areas can’t find people to do that.
“I like knowing my neighbors, and working with them. I don’t have a dad or grandpa to learn from. I just read a lot, and talk to other people. A lot of farmers love to talk about farming.
“I rent milo stubble fields from other farmers to cut feed costs in the winter, and that helps save hay in a year like this.
“One field this year connects between home and our other pasture, so we won’t have to do as much fencing. We use a lot of hi-tensile 12 and 14-gauge electric fence with fiberglass rods. When a deer hits it, it doesn’t break as easily as roll-wire.
“Farming is not our main income. My wife is a school teacher in Goessel.”
Smucker does value-added selling with the livestock providing lean grass, hay and alfalfa fed animals with no implants and little grain to customers taking a little money over market for promotion and locker plant meat processing delivery.
He buys some pigs every year to feed out, and believes the quality of processing at H&H Locker in Hesston and at the Peabody Sausage House helps sell his meat.
Smucker said he could live off the farm if he were willing to have a third-world lifestyle rather than what most Americans are accustomed to.
He works part-time for himself on construction doing home repairs, building garages, machine sheds and other projects, often in partnership with a fellow small farmer, Brad Kaufman from Newton.
He considers working for himself an enabling factor to allow him to care for his sons, Jake, 8, and Danny, 6.
Smucker would consider it very difficult, and probably unrealistic, to get into grain farming with the machinery and investment required.
He believes farming opportunities will remain low with government cheap-food policies, and subsidies that favor large operations.
“I enjoy it though. I enjoy raising my kids in the country, and being able to have friends out, maybe 20 of them camping in the front yard.