By LOU WILIN
Millennial farmers are facing their first downturn.
Grain prices have been down since 2014, and the Trump tariffs last year put a further drag on grain prices.
“The guys who are 60, they’ve gone through downturns in the past. They know that it’s difficult and you get through them and things hopefully will get better. The young farmers, the young generation, I’m going to say the under-40 group, they have not gone through one,” said Ed Lentz, Ohio State University Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources.
“This is their first experience,” Lentz said. “They came on board at around 2010 and 2014. Farming was great. Now they are hitting that other side: ‘What do we do to survive?'”
The Courier decided to ask five millennial farmers that very question.
The newspaper found it is more common for a farmer, or their spouse, to have another job than it was in previous generations.
But besides that, the younger generation of farmers has been creative, diversifying into niche markets or separate small businesses using another talent and skill set.
The current downturn is not considered as perilous as that of the early 1980s, when crop prices were low and interest rates were about 18 percent, sending land values downward.
And technological advances help today’s farmers minimize costs and maximize yields as never before. Crop insurance is more prevalent than decades ago.
But there are some new challenges not faced by earlier generations.
Social media, a blessing for easy, cheap self-promotion, can be a curse when misinformation about a farmer’s goods goes viral.
People can “form a hard opinion based on that false information before we even have a chance to educate them with fact and science,” said Evan Jackson, 31, a farmer in western Hancock County.
“One thing on Facebook can generate three million views and all of a sudden you’ve got a firestorm of information out there that negatively impacts agriculture,” said Adam Kirian, 31, who farms in eastern Hancock County.
Younger farmers also talk of having to do more office work, having more certifications and more technical specialization.
“There is so much more office work than there used to be for previous generations,” Jackson said. He is required to have several certifications for the products he handles and it falls on his shoulders to keep track of it all.
“As a farmer you are your own accountant, your own mechanic. There’s so many different job titles that we hold and trying to balance that can be a big challenge,” he said.
Craig von Stein spoke in a similar vein.
“You’ve got to be a specialist in everything now,” he said. “You’ve got to know a whole lot about a whole lot to make things work, or you have to have a really good team of people to help you with all those things. Everyone is kind of specialized.”
“We have all those risks that we just try to manage. We try to do our best with our marketing plan. We try to do our best with our nutrient management plan. We try to do our best in how we use our resources. We try to do our best to plan for the weather,” von Stein said. “You feel like you have to be a specialist in all of these things.”
And yet, as the latest in their multi-generational farm families, they know change and the need to be adaptable have always been a constant in farming.
Jackson said when he was born in 1988, his father, Tim, had some doubts about the future of his farm operation.
“They had a drought and the economics of farming were not very good at the time,” Evan Jackson said. “But he stuck with it and we ended up being all right.”
Jackson and his millennial peers have heard grandfathers talk about graduating from using horses to driving tractors. Then tractors came with cabs. The millennials and their parents went from driving tractors to riding in tractors that drive themselves.
Evan Jackson’s father, Tim, decades ago tore down fence rows to transition to a larger crop operation. Now the Jackson farm operation is building fences again for its new niche beef cattle operation.
Crops and livestock raised on some farms have changed over the years.
But some of the same themes echo through the years and generations.
When the particulars of the economy, politics, technology and social media are stripped away, you can sense that the millennials are experiencing something very familiar and dear.
“Each generation has a different way of farming, but it all boils back down to your livelihood depends on collaboration between your hard work and the weather that God provides you,” Jackson said. “In the end, it’s those two basic things that put the food on the table.”
Craig von Stein speaks of it, too.
“I think most farmers would just say, ‘We try to do our best every year. We try to make some money so we can afford to do it again next year,'” von Stein said.
“My dad would always say, ‘If we can make enough money to do it again next year, then we’ve made a living. And if we do that for the course of our life, then we’ve made a living. Paid our bills, fed our family. Paid our bills, fed our family.”
Evan Jackson’s way of dealing with the low grain prices has been to branch out to niche markets.
The Jacksons’ “bread and butter” is still grain. They raise corn, wheat, soybeans, forage and pigs in western Hancock County and into Putnam County.
“We were very fortunate the last couple years to have average to above-average yields, which take a little bit of the sting out of the market impact,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you have yield, or good crops, then still you should be able to make it with the right management skills.”
Nonetheless, he and his father, Tim, have been branching out. They have raised honey for 10 years. They also have started raising beef cattle.
“We’re branching out to where if the beef market has an OK year it can at least sustain us when crop prices are low, and vice versa,” Evan Jackson said.
“There’s a lot more interest from society in general in knowing where their food comes from,” he said. “There’s an all-natural trend. People want to know what’s being fed to the animals that they eat. They want to have the direct contact with the producer like they used to have.
“I have some beef here now in individual packages and people will come out” to talk with him about how the cattle are raised, Jackson said. “That niche market has provided us with a little bit more stability.”
He has a Facebook page for the honey operation. Soon he will have one to promote his beef operation.
But social media presents as much challenge as benefit, he said.
“The immediacy in which people can get false information from social media, they form a hard opinion based on that false information before we even have a chance to educate them with fact and science, because we’re farming now with a lot more precision, a lot more technology than ever before,” Jackson said.
“We’re applying less nutrients in a more exact manner, and people don’t think of that because of the misinformation that they get. And they get it too easily, so that’s a huge challenge.”
Besides all of his own efforts, Jackson’s wife, Kari, teaches full time at Liberty-Benton.
The tariffs have had a role in lower grain prices, but Jackson is not ready to criticize them yet.
“I still have faith that maybe it was a good move and that in the future (they) will provide stronger foreign trade for us and a more fair trade, though we have had to struggle through it,” he said. “I hope that in the end it is worth it.”
Farmers use a lot of expensive machinery in their operations: tractors, combines, planters, tillage equipment, and it all needs to be maintained, and at times, repaired.
A.J. Freed, who raises corn, soybeans, wheat and hogs in southwestern Hancock County, runs his own equipment repair shop as a hedge against downturns in the farm economy.
“It’s what helps pay the bills,” he said. “You’ve got to diversify. Hit a downturn in one thing, it can be good for another thing.”
Freed, 33, opened the shop in 2016 after 11 years with Findlay Implement. He had earned a certificate through Owens Community College’s John Deere technician program.
In addition, his wife, Megan, is a sales director for Mary Kay.
Besides that, Freed is frugal in managing his farm assets and controlling costs. He applies manure from his hogs on his grain fields to save on fertilizer and other costs. It’s important because the prices of some fertilizers have risen recently, he said.
His frugality was learned from his parents and grandfather, on whose farms he helped when he was growing up.
“I try to follow in their footsteps,” he said.
And yet, he knows he is not quite in their difficult shoes.
“When Mom and Dad bought their first farm (it) was back in the high-interest rates (in the early 1980s). Just hearing the way they had to pay bills and how they lived, that definitely makes you think a little bit,” Freed said. “Yeah, we’ve got it tough, but not as tough as they had it back then.”
While someone else might have become embittered that President Trump’s tariffs caused a drag on soybean prices when they were already low, Freed is philosophical.
“I understand why the tariffs are out there. I believe they are out there to make a fair market, so no one is getting taken advantage of,” he said. “I mean, yeah, it’s affected market prices, but you play the hand you’re dealt.”
Freed is not about to let politics or trade wars spoil the life he loves.
“I mean, farming’s in my blood. It’s in my family’s blood. We’re not going away anytime soon. At least not willingly,” he said. “We love to care for the ground. Enjoy the fresh air.”
Adam Kirian also is depending on diversification to navigate the downturn in grain prices.
“You have to find different avenues that give you the ability to sustain yourself, or find different avenues to create some growth or a new revenue stream,” he said.
So, besides growing corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, Kirian raises about 300 beef cattle each year on a “natural” program, as well as operating Metzger’s Farm Market produce stand.
There has been a little serendipity, too.
“We were always raising cattle. We just happened to hit it right that we expanded that operation at the same time that crop prices started going down,” Kirian said.
So instead of potentially taking a loss on the corn he grows, Kirian uses it as feed for his “naturally-raised” beef cattle, which draw a premium return. The beef he sells are raised without antibiotics and medicated feed.
“We get an extra 30 cents (a pound) over what the market is” on the beef, he said.
Which is nice, given the low grain prices from, among other things, the Trump tariffs.
“When China stopped buying a lot soybeans from us our market took a fall,” Kirian said. “Yeah, it’s a concern.”
But Kirian is confident the grain markets will improve eventually.
“They can only buy soybeans someplace else for so long before they have to come back to the table and figure something out with us,” he said.
“I look 30 years down the road and say, I think that we’ll be able to look back on this and say, ‘Hey, this was a good thing that we were able to change in 2019,'” Kirian said.
He is less cheerful about social media’s effects on farmers.
“In the last 10 years especially we’ve started to really come under the microscope with the advent of social media and people’s ability to go out and post stories and opinions that they sometimes call facts,” Kirian said.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that’s able to be consumed by media users now. One thing on Facebook can generate three million views and all of a sudden you’ve got a firestorm of information out there that negatively impacts ag.
“Whether it comes in the way our proteins are produced, our beef, our swine industry has taken a lot of hits from things like that,” he said. “It’s not necessarily because there’s anything wrong in the way those things are done, but the information gets out there because somebody said so and it’s taken as doctrine. We face a lot of challenges just from a perception of how things are done.”
But don’t look for it to force a career change by Kirian.
“I always wanted to farm,” he said.
A couple of years ago, he came upon an old note from his kindergarten teacher to his mother. He had written in a school booklet that he was going to be a farmer.
“Something about farming, once it gets in your blood, you can’t get away from it. It’s just part of you,” he said.
“I get to be outside a lot. There’s a season to everything we do. It’s constantly changing. I’m not doing the same thing, day in, day out,” Kirian said.
“It always presents a new challenge. There’s a different outcome for every single thing that we do. You can plant corn on the same day for five years in a row and have a different outcome because of the weather.”
Amanda Township farmer and Hancock County Farm Bureau President Steve Ruggles is using all the benefits of technology to weather the low grain prices and rising cost of fertilizer.
Ruggles, 32, does not just mess around with two or three soil samples on a field where he will grow corn, wheat or soybeans.
“Over an 80-acre field, we’re going to take soil samples in two-and-a-half-acre grids, and we’re basically dissecting that two-and-a-half-acre grid in the field to see what exactly those acres need, to try to save on input costs,” he said.
“So we’re only spreading what that two-and-a-half-acre grid actually needs in that part of the field. So we’re not just throwing a bunch of fertilizer over the field just to spend money. We’re really trying to figure out what that particular section of field needs.
“With the cost of fertilizer and everything going up and the (grain) prices going down, we’ve got to be a lot more diligent with our budgeting and funding, but we also need to get the most we can for production with our yields,” Ruggles said.
His technology-related costs are up, but they pay off in saved costs elsewhere and in improved yields. The technology enables him to maximize yield by planting more seed where the soil is better.
It is good that it is working for him, because otherwise his options are limited.
“It’s hard to expand right now with land prices and things like that. They’re starting to come down. That’s a positive. They’re coming down, but at the same time, the (grain) prices are, too,” he said. “With the tariff and things like that going on, just trying to be patient.”
It helps that his wife, Maggie, works full time as a manager at Dietsch Brothers, 1217 Tiffin Ave. The family’s health insurance is through her job.
“That’s huge, the health insurance side of it,” he said.
A sixth-generation farmer, Ruggles has been well-schooled in patience and the wisdom of living within one’s means.
He also exudes a calm faith that things will be OK.
“Farming is one of those things, it’s tough. As a family, we have a lot of faith and trust in God for a lot of our operations,” he said. “You don’t know when you’re going to get rain. You don’t know what the weather is going to be like.
“You really just take one day at a time,” Ruggles said. “We know the Lord is going to take care of us in the end.”
Craig von Stein
Craig von Stein, 33, is a sixth-generation Jenera-area farmer. His is the first generation in his family to work off the farm.
Besides working on the family farm, von Stein is a business banking officer for Citizens National Bank in Bluffton. His wife, Emily, also works at a bank.
The job off the farm is “more of a necessity,” he said.
The struggle for young farmers is coming up with enough capital to afford land, equipment, and all the crop and livestock expenses, he said.
Von Stein raises corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. When he was growing up, his father, Dean, was one of the larger pork producers in Hancock County. The von Steins also raised some cattle, he said.
But things have become more specialized.
It used to be that “every farmer had (a) few hundred acres and they had some hogs and they had some cattle. They had several, several things on their farm that they did,” von Stein said. “Now it’s narrowed to where you are either a hog farmer, a dairy farmer, row crop farmer.”
An accelerated pace of change in technology and markets in the past 10 years has only sharpened the trend toward specializing, he said.
“You’ve got to be a specialist in everything now,” von Stein said. “You’ve got to know a whole lot about a whole lot to make things work, or you have to have a really good team of people to help you with all those things. Everyone is kind of specialized.”
Von Stein is not too upset with the Trump tariffs and the resulting reduction in soybean prices.
“Obviously, we need to work things out with China. We need to work them out in a long-term fashion. It may be a little sour for us now,” he said.
“But if we can form better relationships with them on a long-term basis, take some of that risk out of it … that is going to make it better for the farmer overall.”
He said he and other farmers remain hopeful.
“…Farming is such a long-term game. It’s never a short view. It’s always a long view. We would like markets to be corrected quickly, but we also understand what the goal here is,” von Stein said. “We need China in the game.”
“As huge a producer of soybeans as the United States is, and as huge a buyer of soybeans as China is, it would be nice if that relationship with us directly is worked out,” he said.
“I’d like to think and hope that we’ll get that worked out.”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin