Small US farms struggle to stay in the family

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Small US farms struggle to stay in the family2

Farmers who want to stay small and independent in the United States are under increasing pressure. U.S. government figures show 97 percent of all farms are family-run, but that’s because many small family farms turned into big family farms – and big businesses. One problem in the quest to stay small: a shortage of willing heirs to take over operations.

CCTV’s Roza Kazan reports. 

Follow Roza Kazan on Twitter @rozakazancctv

Small US farms struggle to stay in the family

Small US farms struggle to stay in the family

Farmers who want to stay small and independent in the United States are under increasing pressure. U.S. government figures show 97 percent of all farms are family-run, but that's because many small family farms turned into big family farms - and big businesses. One problem in the quest to stay small: a shortage of willing heirs to take over operations.

Lin Warfel has been farming his whole life. And before that, three previous generations of Warfels worked this land.

But now, for the first time in over a century, no family member wants to take over. 

Warfel, now 75, says his own five children, who all found jobs off the farm, witnessed the farm crisis of the 1980s when low commodity prices and high interest rates drove thousands of farms to bankruptcy.

“For the farmers who went out of business who lost everything except their life, that was really hard and my kids picked up on that,” Warfel said. “They decided they didn’t really want to work 20 years and then start over.”

It’s a dilemma facing many small family-owned farms. Some expand their enterprises to keep the younger generations involved.

Like the Kilgus Farmstead in Illinois. A small dairy farm, they also raised corn and soybeans. But they were too small to support several generations. So when Matt Kilgus’s cousins said they, too, wanted to farm, decisions had to be made. 

“We weren’t interested in milking 500 cows and becoming a huge dairy farm. We started looking around and realized that in Illinois there was no-one else doing a farmstead bottled milk,” Kilgus said.

Kilgus says building their own bottling facility and adding goats to their operations helped create more income. No longer dependent on grain price fluctuations, the farm now supports five families and employs three full-time workers. 

But many farmers still face a shaky future. Experts say making a profit for a small family-owned farm in the United States can now be a struggle. While commodity prices have dropped, the cost of inputs, like land, machinery and fertilizer have remained high.

David Erickson, vice president of the Illinois Farm Bureau says access to financing is key to attracting young people to farming.

“Today, financing is not as big a problem, interest rates are much lower,” Erickson said. “But the cost of everything to get started is much more expensive. Machinery is more expensive, land if you want to try to purchase is definitely more expensive than it was 30 years ago.” 

Warfel still hopes, if not his kids, one of his six grandchildren will come back to the family farm.