Big Shoes to Fill

The average age of an American farmer, according to the people that keep up with that stuff, is 58 years old. It has been on the rise for the last four decades. Approximately one-third are over the age of 65, the normal stage of life when many folks start retiring, or dying. When faced with those facts, the natural question is “who will feed America in the future?” Or as George Jones would say, “who’s gonna fill their shoes?”

The answer to the question is really quite simple—young farmers. The process of making that a reality is a bit more complex. My experience with older farmers is they have a hard time letting go or handing over control of the operation, even though they know they will have to one day. This is understandable. They have worked hard over the course of their lives, weathered good years and bad, and built their operations to what they are today. The hesitancy to walk away from that, handing over the reins to someone else, is understandable.

The English poet John Donne once famously said, “no man is an island entire of itself.” Perhaps this year that has been 2020 with its pandemic, lockdowns, isolation, and social distancing has shown us just how much we need human interaction and socialization. In short, perhaps it has shown us just how much we need each other and that we are truly all in this together. So what am I getting at? Well, I’ll tell you. The way I see it, in order to make room for younger farmers it is a multistep process.

First, we in the younger generation need to show humility and earn our seat at the table. We need to show and prove our worth. This is not a popular message, but it’s the truth. We are entitled to nothing in this life. We must get out and work for it. What this means will be different for every person, but if you’re serious about farming, it’s what you gotta do. Maybe it means finding an older farmer that has no hired help and offering your help and over time you are able to work out an arrangement for use of his equipment in exchange for your labor, thus allowing you to get started. The path to getting started will be different for everyone. Don’t be scared to think outside of the box or go about it in an unconventional way. The road may not be an easy one, but seek opportunity in whatever form it may take and wherever it may come from. If you try long enough and hard enough, you will eventually get there.

Second, for older farmers, there must be a recognition that they will not live forever and cannot farm forever. This is a tough one. Leadership of the operation is eventually going to change one way or the other. If you’re an older farmer, be an active participant in the leadership change so you can have some say in your operation’s future direction.

Third, a recognition that we truly are all in this together. America needs farmers and always will. We all like to eat—multiple times a day. The agricultural history of this nation is rich. A cursory examination shows a long and unbroken chain going back to this nation’s founding of individuals who accepted the awesome responsibility to be stewards of this great land and producers of its food. It is up to us in the younger generation to pick up this mantle and carry it forward. It is up the older farmers to extend a helping hand to those coming behind them, as those who came before them did. The older farmers most assuredly worked hard to get to where they are today, but they didn’t get there alone. There were those who helped them along. Now is their time to return the favor.

Sir Isaac Newton famously said, “if I have been able to see farther than others, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Although I do not farm for a living, the life I enjoy today is because of the path blazed by those that came before me. In my eyes, farmers like my father and grandfather are giants in this life, especially my grandfather. Others probably don’t see it that way. That’s ok. The eye of the beholder is what counts. My grandfather is a man that began his farming career with a mule and plow and has lived to see tractors that drive themselves and yields that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. All of this happening in one lifetime. Man, what a life.

We in the younger generation have much to learn from those that came before us. The wisdom and experience possessed by men like my father and grandfather could fill all the world’s libraries and then some. What an invaluable treasure we will lose when they are gone. We should strive to learn all we can while we can. We have big shoes to fill.

Until next time, farm on, farm hard, and keep it in the field rows.

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