By Anita Neal Harrison
JUST UNDER three decades ago, many family farms were poised on the brink of bankruptcy. Years of borrowing against rising land values had left farmers so overextended that, when faced with production surpluses, reduced federal subsidies and falling prices, there wasn’t enough cash to pay the bills. A sell off of cropland began and prices plunged, dropping to half their peak worth. Thousands of farms faced foreclosure. Some despairing farmers even turned to suicide.
It was in the middle of this calamity — the farm crisis of the 1980s — that Kevin Moore finished his agricultural economics doctorate and came to the University of Missouri. For him and his colleagues at University Extension, the first order of business was helping struggling farmers plan and cope. But it wasn’t long before Moore noticed another group in need of attention: Ag students wondering whether there was any point returning to their families farms.
“We had kids here at the college who had planned on going back to the farm and then, all of a sudden, it’s very scary,” Moore says.
Moore and several colleagues developed a program to help these students and their families take a hard look at whether farming might still be in their futures. Often the answer was yes, thanks in part to lessons learned from experts like Moore.
The program, “Returning to the Farm,” eventually became an undergraduate course in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Moore serves as lead instructor.
For today’s student farmer-to-be, of course, the crisis of the ’80s is as nearly remote as the Dust Bowl was for their parents. But every generation seems to be tested. Moore says this generation’s crisis is as serious as any that has come before: the aging of the U.S. farmer.
Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers older than 65 grew by nearly 22 percent, according to the USDA. For every farmer and rancher under 25, there are five who are 75 or older.
It’s not that students aren’t interested but that older retirement ages are requiring farms to support multiple generations longer than in the past.
“The desire to return is pretty much there,” Moore says. “What we do is help students with the proper planning, so that the decision on what to do — if and when to go back — is made easier and with more confidence.”
Moore, himself, didn’t grow up on farm, but his dad was a professor of agriculture for Illinois State University, and living in Central Illinois, Moore was around agriculture enough to feel its pull. He majored in agriculture business at Illinois State University and took an ag practicum class that had him working on the university farm. He drove tractors, plowed fields, milked cows, pulled calves, shoveled manure — “You name it,” he says with a laugh. “That was a great class, a great experience. And if I’d had the opportunity to return to the farm, that’s what I would’ve loved to do.”
Instead, Moore did what he calls “the next best thing;” he followed his dad into university teaching. Moore had seen, watching his dad, how rewarding teaching could be, and Returning to the Farm intensifies those rewards.
“One of the things we always strive for is [making] classes applicable to the lives of our students,” Moore says. “And this class couldn’t be any more applicable. This is what’s keeping them up at night. It’s what they’re wrestling with in their personal lives. And here, we’re giving them the tools to work through those decisions.”
Specific help includes weekly classroom sessions focused on farming’s financial feasibility; a weekend family workshop that deals with thorny issues such as estate planning, market outlooks, tax management; and help for students in creating viable business plans.
Ultimately, says Moore, family communication is key. The class prods families into “talking about things that everybody has been wondering about and fretting about but nobody had been able to bring up,” he says. Sometimes the conversations and number crunching reveal a difficult truth: The farm isn’t going to support another generation. That can be hard to take, Moore says. But not as hard as a farm in bankruptcy.
“To me, success for the class is helping students and families make the best decision, and the best decision might be not to go back,” Moore says, adding sometimes that means never and sometimes it means just not right now.
Moore himself knows about waiting for the right timing. He still has dreams of being a farmer. He actually owns a farm a couple of hours north of Columbia, but he’s not able to do much with it at present. “I wouldn’t mind retiring up there,” he says, “but that’s too far in the future. I’m 54, so I should have at least a decade left here at MU.
“I like what I do,” he continues. “Education is in my blood, and it’s my passion.”