Where Did All The Farmers Go

Several times a year, I hear someone complain about the development of farm land in our area. These complainers consider it a crime that so much of our farm land has been converted to housing, business, shopping, etc. They seem to consider the farmers and developers to be criminals.

If you want to know why so many farmers have sold out to developers, allowed the land to grow houses instead of crops and left the farm life that their families enjoyed for generations – read on. Do you know why more and more farms are growing houses, stores and filling stations instead of cows, corn and potatoes? Do you know where the farmers went? Well, my father and I are farmers that left the farm. Most of our neighbors have too. Most of us still live in the area; we just don’t farm any more.

Few people understand the farming they espouse as so charming and worthy. It was long hours, hard work and little or no pay. Most farmers had less money at the end of the year, after expenses, than those who clerked in stores. Some years the earnings were less than costs, too many years in fact where even the best farmers lost money and had to sell land to survive.

Although entire farms were lost in the great depression of the Thirties; in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, most farmers had to sell of lots and acreage for homes and development, even though they worked to exhaustion every hour they could and applied every possible correct business practice.

Even the most prosperous farms in Delaware, such as the Townsends with all their tens of thousands of acres, have not retained the younger generations of the Townsend family to work in the agribusiness. Farming is hard work. The hours can be even longer today than 50 years ago, with equipment maintenance, constant seminars on chemicals, land use, improved techniques and hours of record keeping, computer work, reading professional publications, etc. Not only do farmers still need to rise before the sun to tend the land and animals, but they must work into the evening hours on the business techniques and applications.

Profit margins are slimming by the year and not nearly worth the risk according to more and more farmers. There is seldom a farmer’s son or daughter who wants the farm life instead of the shorter hours, reduced stress, far lower risk and far higher pay of urban work and life.

More and more farmers are changing farms into recreational, entertainment and tourist attractions to pay the bills that crops won’t pay. Corn mazes bring in more money and far more profit than harvested corn, shelled corn or corn meal. Dairy farming as entertainment for urban tourists is far more profitable than dairy farming as agriculture.

Blueberry farms are not sustainable in most areas, with rising labor costs, unless they become U-Pick entertainment berry farms, with all manner of fruit pies, blueberry muffins and berry twig Christmas wreaths. You will see more and more farms become entertainment, destination, and recreation farms in years to come – or you will see houses grow on the land instead.

Even many cattle and horse farms sustain themselves by charging people hundreds or thousands of dollars to come shovel manure, castrate bulls, brand calves, or do the cowboy roundups that were once the jobs of people who got paid to do the work.

Dad stopped farming twenty years ago and says he should have stopped ten years before that. He was an award winning farmer and a superb businessman. He usually produced as much on each acre as ordinary farmers did on dozens or even a hundred acres. Dad learned to grow healthy corn with stalks just an inch or so apart when others had the corn one, two, or even three feet apart.

Some of our most productive farm land is now better suited for concerts, “Punkin Chunkin” exhibitions, lacrosse camp, baseball training, model airplane flying and other varied recreational uses for the land where I grew up farming, pulling weeds, driving cattle and riding in rodeos in the off season.

Even Dad’s productivity and his prudent management, did not earn the return farming that any other business had to earn to stay viable. Dad has owned and managed a few dozen other businesses and farming is the only one he had to abandon, although he loved it most. The risks of weather, market forces and government capriciousness have been and continue to be incredibly high.

Buying Country Acreage and Rural Properties, To Buy or Not To Buy

Almost anyone can become a rural property owner; if you are willing to set goals, establish what your purposes are, plan ahead and set targets that are all aligned toward the same result. And, if you can be patient instead of requiring instant gratification.

There is no more $50-an-acre land; unless you count some of the inaccessible and unusable properties that are sometimes available in blocks of 10,000 acres or more; and even these properties are rare. But you can get rural properties more reasonably now than in the past IF you are willing to be creative in your expectations and in the ways you use and modify the property.

If you are in a big hurry to find rural property, you will likely not be able to find what you are looking for. Rural properties have fewer buyers who want to purchase them, but there are plenty of dreamers who have not considered the realities. There are seldom bargains available because most folks who own rural properties know exactly who to call first when they want to sell. If the property really is a bargain it is gone with one of the first ten phone calls the seller makes. However, if you are willing to “think outside the box” of convention you may end up with what is a bargain property for you.

Twenty and thirty years ago thousands of folks bought into the “live on a farm and make a fortune” dream of owning a chicken house, home and acreage in Sussex County Delaware — the chicken capital of the world — where there are several million chickens for every person who lives here. For a short while it was possible to take the “contract” from a chicken plant to the bank and with only that as collateral, get a loan for about 10 acres, a home and at least one chicken house. Many folks soon discovered that the so called contract had fine print and clauses that were all in favor of the chicken plant and none in favor of the chicken grower. Soon most chicken growers were working full time to help support the chicken business they had bought, along with it’s mortgage of $200,000 or more, sometimes much more.

Now when I appraise a chicken farm with house and acreage I appraise the working chicken farm at zero — and that is really too high a value in some cases. There are lots of easier, better smelling and cleaner jobs you can purchase with $200,000 or so. If you want to make a living growing chickens you should prepare to spend at least a million dollars, you can finance it of course, and get several chicken houses built around your home on 15 to 20 acres, if you don’t mind the smell, and then the best bet is to lease the business to someone who is running 20 or thirty chicken houses at least.

There are some sensible things you can do in contemplation of moving to and living in the country. First among those is to start by renting a small home in the area you want to live — and either move there or at least visit there often enough to get to know the area. If you already live close enough to drive to your dream area daily, start doing that and start frequenting the shops, churches and restaurants there. Stop at yard sales and to check into cars, trucks and equipment that is for sale in people’s front yards. Be honest, tell them you are planning to move into the area and want to learn about your neighbors and only stop to shop if you are really interested in what they have for sale and are willing to purchase it at your price. Rural folk have a built in truth-detector and it is usually accurate. Don’t try to BS them or your reputation will precede any other data about you.