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Getting Down on the Farm: Navigating the Cost-Prohibitive Realities of Farmland

By   /  June 22, 2015  /  1 Comment

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Nobody is getting what they really want…except maybe this guy.

Nobody is getting what they really want…except maybe this guy.

Do you remember what a junior high dance party was like? It may be too far in the rearview mirror for some of you, so I’ll refresh your memory. The girls are on one side, talking and keeping each other company while the boys are trying to look cool with their hands in their pockets and their backs against the wall on the far end of the gym floor. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but the thing about this situation is this: NOBODY IS GETTING WHAT THEY REALLY WANT. The girls would love to have a boy come and ask them to dance; the boys would love the bragging rights to say they had the gumption to ask Cindy Lou to dance.

What does this have to do with agriculture? More than you think! The current climate in agriculture is at a demographics impasse, with the average age of a farmer being around 65 years of age. At the same time, there’s a growing “back to the land” movement where great, young men and woman are passionate to get their hands dirty and proudly call themselves farmers and ranchers.

This sounds like a match made in heaven, but there’s is a perceived barrier here – “perceived” being the key word. Land prices have neared historic highs these last few years. I know of 200 acres of nearby farm ground purchased a few weeks ago by a producer (who can see 65 on the horizon) for $10,000 per acre. This is not exactly prime Iowa corn ground, folks. Good land, yes. But there are few things you can grow legally for $10,000 per acre that pencil out (unless you find yourself in states like Colorado).

But I digress. My point is that most young, aspiring farmers don’t have the capital to get into a hot market like this. Even if land prices were half what they are right now around the country, I speculate there’d be a large swath of hopefuls who still couldn’t afford a farm. This next generation is strapped with the largest student loan debt bubble in history and a job market that’s less than sizzling. We’ve come a long way from the days of running out to your piece of land, driving a stake in the ground and proclaiming it yours. No more land giveaways, and I doubt there ever will be.

Farm Security Administration Photo, 1938.

Farm Security Administration Photo, 1938.

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those young(ish) aspiring farmers who desperately wants to call a piece of land my own. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent dreaming about farm and ranch land, reading “for sale” listings and letting my mind wander about how great that would be. But I’ve come to a realization: dreaming is not good enough.

One of Joel Salatin’s apprentices, Tai Lopez, once talked about the difference between a dream and a vision. A dream is just that, and it’s great. I do it every night unless my 3-year-old daughter climbs in my bed and tries her best Chuck Norris impression. I still day-dream, too. But, I now know that dreaming will not get me any closer to where I want to be.

Dreams are just the start. Take that dream of yours and turn it into a vision. A vision is more evolved and rooted in action. Yes, action! We could spend every day of our lives dreaming, and nothing would change. Dreaming feels nice, but that dream isn’t a reality. Action links your agricultural, entrepreneurial and lifestyle dreams to reality.

I asked Gabe Brown, North Dakota no-till farmer extraordinaire, his advice for the many in my situation. His answer was this: “Align yourself with people who are already doing what you want to do.” I thought about those words for a long time. In fact, I think of them every day since last November. You know the most important part of Gabe’s advice? It’s simple, and it’s actionable. Since that day last fall I’ve done the following, and you can too:

Create a “hotlist” of people you need to meet or connect with in agriculture.

Click to head on over to linked in and get signed up.

Click to head on over to linked in and get signed up.

Create a LinkedIn account. You may be surprised to find out that thousands of people and groups in the agricultural industry are on LinkedIn. When has networking ever been a bad thing?

Volunteer to work at a local producer’s farm.

Find ways to bring value to current agricultural producers. We live in a society where time is exchanged for money. Put that aside and think in terms of value. I’ll give you two great examples of bringing value:

At a family farm I know, the head irrigator broke his leg. This is a serious issue when you farm in a desert. This farm is also diversifying into pastured pork and grass-finished beef this year, while maintaining their traditional cash crops and hay production, so they have a few things to juggle.

Enter my friend Evan. Evan’s a stay-at-home dad with a 3-year-old-son, and he’s more than motivated to get into agriculture (and out of the house). I saw the potential and introduced these two. In exchange for his time, Evan gets a fair wage, but that’s beside the point. More importantly, Evan gets valuable, hands-on experience and a way to integrate back into society.

Evan approached the opportunity by identifying ways to add value to the operation. He noticed they could use marketing and advertising help. He drafted a proposal that outlined services he would provide and hours he would work in exchange for the experience, an hourly wage and the chance to run a handful of cows with the farmer’s herd. Talk about opportunity! Evan gets to farm without owning the farm. His cows will have calves and Evan’s equity will grow. The potential here is enormous.

Here's Tailor Made Cattle's website.

Here’s Tailor Made Cattle’s website.

And here’s a personal example. I approached Steve Campbell, (from Tailor Made Cattle) and offered to help him with his social media and website development. I could have charged money, but there’s a far greater value. See, Steve’s a grass-finished beef wizard. If I can learn half of what he knows about selecting, breeding and producing premium grass-finished beef, I will have received 10X my initial investment in time. That’s real value!

So if you find yourself with your back against the wall and hands in your pockets at this barn dance, you better shake off those jitters and pick your partner. Sooner or later the music will stop, the dance will be over and you’ll be left empty handed, your dreams unrealized. All because of inaction. Nobody wants that feeling.

Joel Salatin is well known for saying, “I don’t know how anyone sleeps at night with so much opportunity in the world.” I couldn’t agree more. So get out there, grab your partner by the hand and start your Do-si-do, Two-Step, Harlem Shake, or whatever it is you kids are doing these days. There are plenty of dance partners.

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1 Comment

  1. Earl says:

    John has put his finger on the problem and the solution. Education and sweat equity are the only means available to many of the young, aspiring farmers.

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