Nebraska bucks national trend of declining young farmers
At 6:30 a.m., David Jedlicka walks into brother Allan’s shop on their farm just south of Clarkson, Nebraska. It’s the beginning of the work day and they both shoot a glance at a whiteboard hanging next to the door telling them the “things to buy” and “things to fix.”
There are many things to fix on a farm, but one that can’t be fixed is age. David is 60 and Allan is 68.
The Jedlicka operation, which consists of 6,000 head of cattle and 2,300-plus acres of corn, is but one example of family farming and ranching operations that are at a critical crossroads as the result of a disturbing trend: The average age of the farmer has risen and fewer young people are returning to the farm.
A number of factors are making farming less appealing to young people, said Aaron Nygren, University of Nebraska extension educator. Those include unsteady markets, record-high rent and high-input costs such as fertilizer, seed and fuel. To compound the issue, a jump in land value led farmers to overspend.
The current ag climate is unsettling for farmers like the Jedlickas.
“No one really knows what’s really going to happen,” David Jedlicka said. “Two to three years ago we made a ton of money on cattle and no one saw that coming. No one said you were going to lose it all in ’15 and ’16. Some of this stuff is unforeseen.”
That rocky landscape has made young people hesitant to farm, according to government figures.
But apparently not in Nebraska. While the number of young farmers are declining nationally, the numbers are making a rebound in the Cornhusker State.
UNL student Mitch Oswald is one of those planning to take up the reins. Oswald will graduate in December with a degree in agronomy. He and his brother, Matt, will be the sixth generation at Oswald Family Farms, just west of Aurora, Nebraska.
Mitch Oswald credits his family for his love for agriculture.
“Over the years, our family has grown so close, my dad and I especially, because of all of the years I spent in the tractor and combine cab with him,” he said. “It’s pretty fun to sit back now that I’m about to turn 23 and look back at the fun times and know that I will wake up in December and farm.”
Mike Oswald, Mitch’s father, now runs the family farm after taking over from his father, Jim Oswald, who retired. The family has built a farm that consists of 1,300 acres of corn and seed corn. They also dispatch trucks for a local trucking company.
The farm spans back to the mid 1800s during the Homestead era. The family have the original papers signed by President Hayes.
Mitch Oswald said he’s proud of his family’s agricultural heritage and looks forward to cultivating the farming tradition.
“It’s always been my passion and growing up spending all those hours with my dad,” he said. “I looked up to my dad as my biggest role model. It’s always been a goal of mine. It’s an tremendous honor to be a sixth generation farmer.”
Young farmers like the Oswald brothers are crucial in agriculture, Nygren said.
“There’s definitely need for more youth. The age is going up and sometime those people are going to have to retire,” Nygren said. “In the next 10 to 15 years, there will be a turnover and today’s challenges will expedite the process.”
Yet the number of young farmers has dropped 20 percent in a five-year stretch. From 2007 to 2012, the most recent figures available, the number of farmers 34 and younger declined from 652,820 to 522,058, according to the USDA.
During the same time frame in Nebraska, however, the number of young farmers rose 41.5 percent from 3,353 — the lowest number since 1987 — to 4,747.
“I’m not really sure why Nebraska has the opposite trend, but it sure is encouraging. Whether it’s demographics, or something else, I don’t know anything specific,” Nygren said.
The national decline, however, can be traced back to the 1980s, Nygren said.
“Guys were going bankrupt like crazy so the dads told their sons not to come back. The ones that survived kept in it and that’s led to this gap,” he said.
During the 1980s farm crisis, farmers felt their profits slip through their fingers. Interest rates skyrocketed 20 percent, land values went from $900 to $2,500 an acre and inflation led to tough times for many grain farmers.
Because the latter half of the 70s had been period of growth and development, some farmers overbought and overspent on farmland, equipment and facility upgrades. The shortage of revenue led to the 1980 collapse.
“We were lucky then,” Allan Jedlicka said. “We had an edge over the grain farmer because the 1980s didn’t affect cattle producers, but today’s issues are affecting everyone.”
But Mitch Oswald remains undaunted.
“I never thought it was a bad industry to get into,” he said. “Even though the grain prices may not be the best, it’s a good challenge, and I’m ready.”