I am working with a 71-year-old landowner. He raises horses and beef cattle on a small farm with perennial grass hay and grazing land. The farm equipment is for hay harvested as round bales. He has one small manure spreader on the back of a John Deere 2020 tractor.
There are two horse trailers, one older one that shows rusts, dents, scraped paint and missing lights, and a newer one with shiny aluminum, functioning lights and a rubber bumper next to the entry ramp.
In the popular news is something we farm people already know. The aging of our farmers is manifest all across the U.S. Here in upstate New York, nearly all of the farmers I work with are my age or older. I will admit on some of them the next generation is on the farm but not as involved in decision-making as one might want them to be.
Our 71-year-old horse/beef farmer is a widower; his wife died of cancer a decade ago. He has a son and daughter. They are hundreds of miles away with solid careers outside of agriculture.
We have had and continue having discussions about how this farm will be managed in the future. With no younger family member anywhere near, this question is worthy of some serious thought. About a month ago, I arrived on the farm to find a young couple working in the horse barn.
A young man was forking out bedding and manure from the horse stalls, and the young woman was writing something on a clipboard. I introduced myself to them.
The couple lives together in town, about eight miles from the farm. He had lost his job working in the granite mines, where large chunks of solid rock are removed from an open quarry and are later cut and polished for kitchen counter-top material.
The quarry owner replaced two smaller excavators with a larger one. No longer did he need two operators, so this man was let go. She, on the other hand, had enrolled in a college 60 miles away to learn a trade.
Evidently there are people who transcribe medical data into electronic format, and this is a skill she was learning – except the commute, cost of time and gas money was too much. She has two small children at home, and the logistics of caring for them made life as a parent too challenging.
Neither one of them come from a farm. They had not worked with animals or ever driven a tractor. But on a warm spring afternoon, as they drove down a small road, they happened to stop by this farm to see the horses eating hay next to the fence. The farmer happened to drive by as well. He stopped and they exchanged greetings.
To make a long story short, the couple agreed to work on the farm for one week … sort of a trial run. The first task was teaching them how to be around animals, in this case, horses. For most of us, we learned how to be around animals very young and became natural at it. Not in this case.
Cleaning out the stalls, forking the bedding and manure into the manure spreader, and then driving to the field took every bit of the first week. He had to learn how to drive a tractor, how to open and close cattle gates, how to engage the PTO, and so on. The farmer rode on the side of the tractor against the fender, while the young man drove the John Deere.
The young woman was particularly attracted to the horses and wanted to do the feeding and movement of animals to and from the exercise arena. She is on a steep learning curve. The first time I saw her she was recording on paper everything she needed to know about the personality of each of the 18 horses.
And her kids are here, too. A playpen was set up in the office for the youngest, and the older boy, about 6 years old, is carefully sticking close to his mother.
I do not know how all this is going to work out. When the newness wears off, this young couple may revert back to a previous non-farm life. Yet if the farmer can carefully teach them and understand that being comfortable with farm chores and animals will take a lot of time, then maybe this short-term relationship can be a longer one.
Farming of any kind is a young person’s business. The demands of both time and physical work, coupled with understanding the business side of farming, require a huge commitment. More than anything else, the commitment requires the discipline to know young people will have to learn by making mistakes and then correcting them so they are not made again … at least too often.
For this young couple, here is an opportunity for both of them, and the young children, to experience what most people never have … an opportunity to work with animals and work with land and soils and pastures.
I offer them no advice other than to tell them they have something special if their relationship is based upon working together. They can learn how to farm together. Farm, in this case, is a verb: The act of farming is an action verb.
Growing crops, grazing animals, fixing fence, hauling manure, helping a beef cow calve, cleaning a water trough, putting tarps over the windows in winter as a windbreak, and just as importantly, knowing all of these are required all the time. The weekends are different now. During haying season, this time of year, operating the round baler may need to be done on Sunday afternoon.
The planning effort we do on a farm includes some discussion of what happens in future time, as in two to five years or even longer. For this gentleman, a Vietnam veteran trained as a nurse and fond of horses and cows, this young couple may be the bridge to his future, one that is demanding in terms of time and physical effort.
For this couple, a whole new world is in front of them, and an optimistic world that perhaps they have found their calling. They will struggle, and because they struggle together, they may be more likely to stick together. And the small children, they are learning as well.
I chuckled when I saw this grown man trying to learn how to drive a tractor … but at the same time I admired him too. I wish him and his companion the best, and our 71-year-old farmer too. PD
- Agricultural Scientist
- Email Mike Gangwer