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May 1, 2014 Volume 35, No. 29

Agriculture students learn to assess realities of returning to the family farm

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Garrett Riekhof and his father, Gary, still sometimes work together on the Higginsville, Mo., family farm. Garret and his wife, Cara, took ownership of the operation in 2011. Photo by Rob Hill.

Starting a farm from scratch is nearly impossible financially for someone of average means

Sometimes when Garrett Riekhof is alone in the fields, he hears voices. 

One has the distinct drawl of his grandpa, the late Rienhardt Riekhof, who farmed the same acres that Garrett now tills and sows. This plainspoken voice upholds the way things were done for four generations on the Higginsville, Mo., farm. The other voice sounds like Garrett’s, a 2003 University of Missouri graduate with a degree in agricultural economics, interested in maximizing land efficiency through the latest technology.

Grandpa Riekhof trudged through dirt steering a 12-inch plow pulled by two horses. Garrett sits in a tilling tractor’s climate-controlled cab, fitted with a laptop computer and a GPS, streaking the rolling land with a 40-foot-wide plow. Grandpa shoveled horse manure onto patches of stunted crops. Garrett takes soil samples to test chemical composition, then applies fertilizer treatments to optimize land productivity.

Despite his embrace of new technology, Garrett, who returned to the family farm after graduation, cannot escape his lineage. “I hear Grandpa saying do it like this, and me saying do it like that,” Garrett, 32, says in a mild Midwest twang. “If I screw it up, I let down not only the generations that came before me. I’ve screwed it up for the generations after me.”

These days, starting a farm from scratch is nearly impossible financially for a person of average means. A successful crop farm stretches more than 750 acres, and 2012 market value for good Missouri cropland was $3,847 an acre, which computes to nearly $3 million. Farm equipment easily tops seven figures. Some new farmers rent their fields, machines and equipment, but that also is an expensive undertaking.

Others, such as Riekhof, return to the family farm.

Though no data are available, experts say Riekhof’s decision is increasingly rare. With the rise of the Internet and cable channels, young people who grew up on a farm have instantaneous access to exciting urban worlds that can make rural life seem quaint. They want nothing to do with days of tilling and working in mud. 

Moreover, the average age of American farmers is 57, with one-third 65 and older, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Because farmers seldom retire early, if at all, that means many returning children can expect to work decades as hired hands before taking ownership. And the farm must financially sustain two or more households. Everyone takes a hit to the pocketbook when the children come home.

While a senior at MU, Riekhof took the course Returning to the Farm, taught by Kevin C. Moore, an associate professor of agricultural economics. Riekhof said it helped him understand the financial realities of his plan. Students determine if the farm is of adequate size to support another household. They work at developing a business plan. The family attends a workshop where straight talk is encouraged. An important issue is broached: Can parents and children work together as equal business partners? Or is such a relationship doomed from the start?

“I don’t measure the success of the class by how many students we get back to the farm,” Moore said. “The measurement of success is helping students make the best decision possible. Avoiding a bad situation is just as important as creating a good one.”

A course is born

Most of those gray, roof-sunken barns seen from country roads, often the muse of oil painters, were built during the agriculture boom of the early 20th century, the golden age of American farming. In the 1920s, advances in farm machinery began the bigger-is-better mentality, in which larger streamlined operations were more efficient and made the most money. Decades of seesawing fortunes followed, including a windfall period after the oil crisis of the 1970s, when agriculture workers enjoyed high market prices for products and increasing land values. 

But the bubble burst. In the 1980s, food prices dropped, and as land values declined, refinancing of high-interest loans from the gravy years was nearly impossible. The fallout was especially harmful to the many farms supporting two or more households. 

In the late 1980s, Moore, at the time a fresh-faced MU professor, founded an MU Extension course with colleagues to help farmers get back in the black, or cut their losses. This morphed into Returning to the Farm after agriculture students kept asking professors and advisers if the return was feasible anymore. In time, it became an undergraduate course in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. About 350 students have taken the two-semester annual course since its inception.

Going home

After graduation, Riekhof married Cara Copenhaver, BS ’03, and returned to Higginsville to work for his father, Gary. In 2011, the couple took ownership and changed the operation’s name to GR Farms, growing 1,420 acres of white corn and soybeans. Even though the Riekhofs are partners of a successful medium-sized farm, they still have to watch their expenses. They rent rather than own the acres (Gary is landlord of half their land) and rent and share ownership of some machines and equipment. The Riekhofs, who have two children, also work part-time jobs not connected with GR Farms.

Following steps outlined in Moore’s class, the succession went well, and Garrett’s parents have no regrets turning the farm over to him eight years after his return.

But for some Returning to the Farm graduates, the path is not as smooth. Caleb Stamper, BS ’13, returned home this year — but not to a farm. His parents, Chip and Carrie Stamper, are business owners and operators of Missouri Taxidermy Institute in Linn Creek, Mo. In 2007, his parents acquired 134 acres of pasture. Caleb’s dream was to stitch more land to the patch and raise beef cattle. But in Moore’s class, Caleb crunched the numbers. They didn’t add up. His plan B was a hobby farm of beef cattle that Caleb hopes to make self-sufficient in 10 years. In the meantime, the 22-year-old works a day job to pay the bills.

Andrew Perry, a senior majoring in agriculture economics, and his brother Alan, 18, hope to work at a farm in Kirksville, Mo., that’s been in the family for three generations. The brothers’ father, Lindall, left the operation and is now a dermatologist in Columbia, where he raised his family. Andrew and Alan got the farm bug by spending weekends and summers at the Kirksville operation working corn and soybean fields and tending beef cattle.

“Planting seeds and helping them grow, raising calves to cows — you can’t beat farm life for me,” Andrew, 20, says.

Andrew signed up for Moore’s class as a junior so he could have more time to prepare for the Kirksville move. At a March 2, 2013, workshop in Memorial Union, students in Moore’s 2012–13 class talked of farm finances, estate planning for farm succession and the cutting-edge techniques learned at MU they want to bring home. Andrew spoke of responsibility and tradition.

The Kirksville operation is on a sprawling wrinkled blanket of hills and bluffs. Sometimes after a long day’s work, Andrew walks to a ridge and sits in the grass. In the distance are checkered family fields, a looping river, shallow valleys and a long zipper of railroad. His favorite spot is within view of his grandfather’s house. Like Garrett, Andrew says his return isn’t about himself and isn’t about money. It is land. It is lineage.

This article was adapted from the feature “Sometimes You Can Go Home,” which appeared in MIZZOU magazine’s Winter 2014 issue.