Thursday, August 09, 2001

Farming becomes an endangered career


Young people look at options, startup costs

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — If you were to take a picture of the typical farm girl, she would look a lot like Sally Wallace.

        A freckle-faced 18-year-old in dungarees and T-shirt, she is making her home this week on the straw-and-sawdust floor of the Brown Sheep Barn at the Ohio State Fair. She sleeps on a cot and spends her waking hours cleaning, grooming and trimming the hooves of the sheep from her family's Corriedale Farm outside the village of Casstown, about 80 miles north of Cincinnati.

[photo] Sally Wallace, 18, gets ready to show her Corriedale Farm sheep at the Ohio State Fair. At left is her father, Ric Wallace.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        She can wrangle a reluctant ewe twice her size into the judging ring, proudly displaying the sheep's thick, brown wool, the supple haunches, the well-formed head, the clear eyes — just as she has done every summer since she was 8.

        “I love raising a ewe that turns out just right,” she said, leaning up against the pen of a ewe that had just earned her a blue ribbon in the junior fair competition.

        “And I love the farm.”

        But chances are, neither she nor her older brother and sister will end up taking over the family farm operation.

        Young people are leaving farms, the experts say, mainly because there are far fewer farms to work:

        • The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that in 1999 Ohio had 68,591 farms, down from about 113,000 in 1976.

        • 41,899 were employed in agriculture in 1998. Only mining had fewer employees at 13,217.

        • The average Ohio farm sold $68,000 worth of agricultural products in 1997, while the average production expense was $53,000. Nearly half of Ohio's farms sold less than $10,000 in products.

        • The average age of Ohio farmers is 53.1 years, with 15 percent over the age of 70 and only 9 percent under 35.

        All of which helps explain why this fall, Sally's parents, Ric and Suzy Wallace, will pack up their daughter's things and make the 50-mile drive to Wilmington College, where Sally will be a freshman.

        She will, like many children of farmers, study agricultural science but will probably end up using that education in some field related to agriculture — bio-engineering, veterinary medicine, aquaculture — not as someone who actually tills the soil and raises the livestock.

        “I don't know what I'll do,” Sally said, brushing the coat of her prize-winning ewe. But it probably won't be working a farm, despite the special place the quiet beauty of the family home will always have in her heart.

        Her parents understand.

        “It's hard for young people to do these days,” Mrs. Wallace said. “There are lots of kids, I think, who would like to take over the family farm; but land is so expensive and they can do so many other things. It's too bad, but that's the way it is.”        

Options abound

        The sheep, hog and cattle barns that adjoin the state fair midway this week are full of children and teens like Sally Wallace.

OHIO FARM FACTS
    Farmland: 15.1 million acres
    Number of farms: 73,000 (down from 113,000 farms 25 years earlier)
    Total cash receipts: $5.3 billion
    Total cash receipts per farm: $73,214
    Employment: 41,899 people in 1998.
    Average weekly earnings by an employee in agriculture, forestry and fishing in 1998: $374.71, lowest weekly earning rate of any industrial sector.
    Rankings: Ohio led the nation in two farm production categories in 1999 — eggs and swiss cheese. Ohio ranked fifth in sweet corn, fifth in tomatoes, seventh in tobacco, ninth in hog production and 11th in milk production.
   SOURCE: Ohio Department of Development
        They belong to 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands and Health) and to Future Farmers of America (FFA). They bring the livestock they raise to compete for ribbons, sleeping in the stalls next to their animals.

        “For the most part, they will grow up to be lawyers, doctors, ditch-diggers, everything that any other group of kids will grow up to be,” said Kara Colvin, the 4-H extension agent for Warren County.

        The 4-H organization is known principally as a program for rural kids, to teach skills and values they can use later in life. But the organization includes many suburban and urban young people. Many who get involved in 4-H competitions at state and county fairs, she said, come from “a family farm that may just be three or four acres and a couple of pigs.”

        Only about 2 percent of the kids she deals with, Ms. Colvin said, come from large family-owned production farms, and even fewer will end up in production farming themselves.

        “It's not surprising,” Ms. Colvin said. “A kid who does a model rocket project isn't necessarily going to be a NASA scientist.”

        Actually most farmers don't work the land full time. Only about 45 percent of Ohio farmers consider farming to be their principal occupation.

        Many are like Steve Herzog, a dairy farmer from Auglaize County, who was showing his Brown Swiss cows at the state fair. He milks his herd of 70 every day and sells pop-up campers to supplement the family income.

        “I couldn't keep it going unless I had some other income,” Mr. Herzog said. “I don't see how any young person could do it starting from scratch.”

        Ms. Colvin said that farmland has been bought up by developers, particularly in counties like Butler and Warren that ring a large urban area.

        “If a young person wants to go strike out on his or her own and buy a farm, the cost of land doesn't make it feasible,” Ms. Colvin said. “It's kind of hard to justify raising corn on land that's going for $10,000 an acre.”

        Even the agriculture education that students receive in rural high schools is now geared more toward preparing young people for careers in industries related to agriculture, rather than the actual growing of crops or raising of livestock, said Paul Hielman, the agricultural sciences teacher at Kenton High School in rural Hardin County.

        Mr. Hielman has about 80 students in his program; he estimated that “maybe five percent” come from family farms.

        “Half of them live in town,” Mr. Hielman said.

        A generation ago, Mr. Hielman said, agriculture education meant learning about crop raising, livestock husbandry and the day-to-day operations of a farm.

        “There has been a shift in the curriculum,” he said. “There had to be, just because of the reality of big corporate farms taking over from small family farms. The opportunities for these kids are in the field related to farming.”

        Some of his students end up in landscaping, wildlife management, sales of farm equipment, veterinary medicine and a host of other fields.

        “What we are trying to do is give them some skills they can use no matter what they end up doing,” Mr. Hielman said.        

Future farmers

        By signing up for agriculture education, the students automatically become members ofFFA. Monday, at the FFA state headquarters on the Ohio State fairgrounds, 16-year-old Daniel Burgbacher of Kenton and three of his high school buddies — all students of Mr. Hielman — were dressed in their navy blue corduroy FFA uniforms, manning the front desk and greeting visitors to the exhibits.

        Daniel grew up in town but, through FFA, has been working on a horse farm and might want to make a career of it.

        “I don't know for sure what I want to do, but I think that would be a good way to make a living,” Daniel said. “I really like horses.”

        Of his friends, one plans a career in the military and another wants to be an auto body specialist. Only 15-year-old Eric Haudenschield, who has grown up on his parents' farm raising sheep and hogs, wants to be a farmer.

        “It's the kind of life I know,” Eric said. “I want to do it as long as I can.”

       



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