MAZON – Tammy and Kevin Halterman learned how to plow ground, bail hay and detassel corn not long after they learned to walk.
The two grew up on neighboring farms, and were each primed to inherit and take over their respective family’s operations – which is exactly what they did after getting married.
Now in their late 50s, the Mazon couple have no plans of retirement as they wait for oldest son Sam, 22, to carry on the family’s 165-year farming legacy.
“We wouldn’t sell. We just wouldn’t,” Tammy said. “To me, family heritage is too important. Our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t toil and work this land for nothing.”
The Halterman’s personal story is one of millions illustrating a much larger national trend – the U.S. farmer is getting older.
Tammy and Kevin may be pushing 80 before they pass along the farming operation to their son – and that would not be uncommon, according to new data from the 2012 United States Department of Agriculture Census.
About 62 percent of U.S. farm operators were 55 years or older in 2012 and a significant number – about 258,0000 – were older than 75 years old. This is up from 2007, when about 56 percent of farmers were older than 55 years old.
The national trend is mirrored in Illinois, where the 55 and older category also grew by about 6 percent from 2007 to 2012.
“Since about 1982, the average age of farmers has been increasing,” USDA statistician Ginger Harris said. “The average went from about 50 years in 1982 ... and now it’s up to 58, on average.”
The increase in age is not being offset by more young farmers entering the business, as farm operators aged 25 and younger stayed relatively static since 2007.
The Halterman’s blame the increasingly expensive costs of farming, some of which the family was able to circumvent by inheriting land and equipment.
“For a young person to start up on their own, it’s just astronomical,” Tammy said. “It’s just not feasible because everything is so expensive.”
Total annual expenses for Illinois farmers have nearly doubled, going from $124,500 a year to $244,011 in just nine years.
The price of renting and buying cropland has also exploded in the last decade. According to USDA data, the average price for one acre of farmland in Illinois is $7,900 compared to $2,500 in 2003.
Illinois also has some of the highest land rental prices in the country, costing as much as $385 per acre.
“Ground is going up toward $10,000 an acre,” Tammy said. “Most people can’t cash flow that kind of purchase.”
And those costs don’t include the equipment. Kevin said one combine tractor can cost as much as $200,000 and most farmers will have more than one piece of equipment.
Combine the high start-up costs with long days of hard labor, and farming becomes an even more unattractive job prospect to young career hunters.
“For a young person to start out, you just can’t do it,” Kevin said. “You’re better off to go get a job in town.”
The Haltermans, like the majority of full-time U.S. farmers, work 12 hour days or significantly longer during the harvest season.
The Halterman’s sons, Luke and Sam, work alongside their parents to keep labor costs down. Together, the family works roughly 2,000 acres, doing almost all of the work by themselves.
Kevin markets all of the Halterman’s commodities himself, which also saves them from paying marketing costs.
“It’s hard work. It involves a lot of thought processes and a lot of planning,” Tammy said. “You have to know what genetics are in the seeds, what grows well on your farm, what doesn’t grow well, agronomy, economics – it’s a lot.”
Despite hours of work in the field, almost half of U.S. farm operators also have to find other sources of income, according to ag census data.
The median annual wage for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers was $69,300 in 2012.
While that is significantly higher than the total median wage for all occupations, it is still about $20,000 less than the median wage for other management positions.
“Everyone thinks when the price of corn goes up, the farmers are getting rich and hog happy,” Tammy said. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”
Not surprisingly, receiving the training needed to operate a farm can take several years, which could be another reason for the age gap.
“To some extent, it may just be that [farmers] are not retiring or are waiting to retire,” USDA statistician Harris said.
Like the Haltermans, aging farmers may be spending what should be their retirement years training the next in line to take over the family business.
Tammy said she and Kevin don’t mind sticking around and feel lucky to have one son interested in farming.
“To us, the family farm is so important,” Tammy said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”