I’ve talked a lot about moving to Iowa in my past blog posts. The farm as my center, the farm as my past, the farm as my future.
But what I haven’t talked about is the truism of how hard it is trying to move back to the farm with an 85 year old father still determined to control everything, even though he doesn’t want to farm himself.
The average age of farmers today continues to rise and younger farmers are continuing to find it difficult, if not impossible to get started in the business. More and more, farms are run by the older generation later into life. My grandfather retired at 60, allowing my father to take over the land in his early 30’s. My father is 85 and is still maintaining sway, while I’ll soon be 50.
I want to take the farm organic, Dad’s sure it won’t work. I want to plant a chestnut orchard, that won’t work either, nobody is doing that. I would like to build agri-tourism on the farm as a business - he says I’m crazy and I’ll lose the farm. Even something as seemingly mainstream in California (where I live) as switching over to grass fed beef is a sure money loser according to him.
He has already decided that I will always need a job off the farm (which, according to statistics, is probably true), that I need to buy another big tractor (something he wants), that I need to buy the 40 acres next to our farm (always a dream of his to expand our farm) and that there is no way anything new or different is going to happen while he’s running things.
But farming in the way he has, has kept farms across the nation on the verge of insolvency. Everything I have learned - as a farmer, as a chef, as a produce buyer and as a butcher - about how Americans currently farm has shown me that the way we are doing it needs to change. But Dad sees these insights as pie in the sky moon gazing. The way he farms now is the only right way to do it, not because it makes him money, but because it is the way things are done.
And yet, when my father was younger, he was seen as an amazingly progressive farmer (aka crazy) by most of our neighbors. He embraced new ideas, even those most thought a waste of time and money. He built ponds and terraces to slow erosion and then added buffer zones around fields long before the government began to promote such things. He was one of the first to adopt no till farming and made sure that crop rotations allowed the land to rest. This while other neighbors continued to ‘mine the land’ as my dad put it, continuously row cropping marginal farmland, wearing out their already thin soils. Parts of our farm have literal feet of topsoil from neighbors fields where it has come to rest after eroding from their farms onto ours.
But at this point, my father’s open mindedness has gone the way of the dodo. Like so many farms, we don’t have a succession plan in place, though there are many options out there. If my father’s health were to fail...well, who knows what might happen to the farm.
I don’t think that I have ever been so angry with my father as when he said no to estate planning - planning so that the farm might pass to the sixth and seventh generations of our family.
This is hard.