Dept. of Agriculture

Rising Costs Keeping Younger Farmers Out

As the average age of the American farmer rises, so does the cost of getting into the game.

By Katharine Shilcutt February 5, 2014

John Travis "Jacko" Garrett donates six million pounds of rice per year to Share the Harvest.

Image: Jill Hunter

In the Februrary issue of Houstonia, on newsstands now, we examine the case of Jacko Garrett: a lifelong rice farmer from Brazoria County who—through his charity, Share the Harvest—helps donate an estimated six million pounds of rice per year to the Houston Food Bank. Those six million pounds of rice equate to 11 million servings, a vital amount for the Food Bank and one they can't do without. Yet they may have to; Garrett doesn't know how much longer he can keep Share the Harvest running.

Much of that reason has to do with the rising cost of agriculture in America. While our country is still dominated by what the USDA classifies as "small farms," those small farms—defined as farms with a gross income of less than $250,000—are disappearing rapidly as the landscape shifts to large-scale farming and industrial agriculture. The number of large commercial farming outfits increased dramatically in the 25-year period between 1982 and 2007; the share of sales also grew substantially, from 27 percent to a market-dominating 59 percent.

What happens when large-scale farms organize on this level can be equated to the Walmart effect: that much purchasing power means industrial farms can purchase essentials such as seed, fertilizer, fuel, and other basic supplies in bulk and pay far less than a smaller outfit. And in those 25 years between 1982 and 2007, the cost of those supplies as well as basic farm equipment rose dramatically.

"It’s everything that you touch," said Jacko Garrett, as we talked during a rare quiet moment in his office. And it's not just fertilizer and seed, either. "The infrastructure of farming industry touches everything—trucking, shipping, fuel, food. Many, many jobs are affected by the farming industry. Food doesn’t come from Kroger or H-E-B."

The price of combines, along with most other farm equipment, has risen dramatically in the last few decades.

Image: Jill Hunter

"That combine sitting out there is a half-million dollars," Garrett said as he pointed to a plate glass window where we could see at least three combines sitting in his vast equipment shed, itself the size of a small hangar. "There’s no way you can justify a half-million for a combine. Those machines cost me about $260,000 used. A tractor today is $250,000; when I went into business, it was $3,000."

Garrett's anecdotal evidence is borne out by research. In a worrying report issued by the USDA in 2005, the agency reported that the costs of fuel and fertilizer alone had spiked 61.5 percent and tripled in the past three years. Fuel was an even bigger financial burden, having increased in cost 200 percent over the period between 2002 and 2005. Mourned the report:

Many participants expressed concern over rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, and other energy-related inputs. They noted these cost increases were having a negative effect on farm profitability and on the competitiveness of U.S. producers in world markets.

Garrett agrees. He's worried not only about the future of his own farm, but farming in general. The average age of the American farmer is increasing by the year, as few young farmers step in to take their place. Just last year, the EPA reported "as the U.S. farm population has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise." Sixty percent of American farmers are over 55 years old, while the average age increased from 54 to 57 years old in just 10 years. "The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution," the report concluded.

Equipment sits near a fallow field at Garrett Farms.

Image: Jill Hunter

"Younger guys can’t afford it," Garrett sighed, gesturing again to his equipment yard. "We’ve probably got $3 million worth of equipment sitting on the yard. There’s no young man who’s gonna go and get a loan for $3 million. He can probably get a loan for $250,000 to buy one tractor. He’s gonna have to go find himself a good ol’ used tractor somewhere and a good ol’ worn out combine if he’s gonna do it." And he needs a younger guy to step up and do the shoe-leather work that running Share the Harvest requires.

"Just being able to rent the ground and do what it takes to get an operating loan is really tough," Garrett shook his head. "You're talking about, say, $900 an acre to farm one crop—the first crop. For 1,000 acres, that’s a lot of money."

At this rate, it's tough to get area rice farmers to donate portions of their rice crops to Share the Harvest. And Texas rice farmers are going to have to be even stingier: a recent Delta Farm Press report notes that farmers are planting less rice this year thanks to the prolonged effects of the Texas drought. "The outlook for rice in Texas is rather dim for 2014," said Mo Way with the Texas A&M University Rice Research Station in Beaumont.

Image: Jill Hunter

Garrett himself has had to sell off large portions of his family farm, started by his father in 1936 and run by various members of the Garrett family for nearly 80 years, just to stay afloat. He's worried about his own ability to continue farming, first and foremost. In the short term, he worries about his employees, the weather, seed prices, and Share the Harvest. And in the long term, he worries about the increasingly industrialized future of the industry he's known so long.

"Corporate farming won’t work," Garrett declared. "Nobody in a corporate farming environment’s gonna work 16, 18 hours a day. There’ve been days where we’ve run three, four days without getting off a tractor because it was wet and then it finally dried up and it’s February and we’ve gotta get our crops planted in March."

"There’s nobody in the corporate world who’s gonna do that. But farmers love what they do."


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