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Fewer Family Farms

September 27, 2011, 10:21 PM by Casey Wonnenberg

Fewer Family Farms
MONTROSE, SD - It's a trend that many in small South Dakota towns are likely noticing: fewer young people are choosing to take over the family farm. Now, two South Dakota State University researchers have received a grant to study the reasons behind the decline and how the trend impacts our economy and family life.

Paul Smith and his son Brian work together at their family farm near Montrose. Brian decided to head back to the farm after graduating from South Dakota State University.

"It's always been what I've wanted to do since I was three to five-years-old. I've always been following my dad around since then," Brian said.

For the Smiths, farming the land near Montrose is a family tradition dating back more than a century.

"My grandfather was the first one to live on this farm, and then my father took it over from my grandfather. My older brother and I farmed with our dad," Paul said.

Now Paul is working with his own son. He's proud to pass the business he's worked so hard to grow on to the next generation.

"That was probably something you hope for but weren't ever sure it would happen, you know? If he didn't want to, we could live with that.  But if he wanted to do it, we wanted to make sure he had the opportunity to do it," Paul said.

While the Smiths enjoy working together, there are actually fewer young people choosing to take over the family farm in the Midwest.

"With South Dakota farm families decreasing in numbers but increasing in their sizes, we want to know what kind of family characteristics contribute to their decision," SDSU Researcher Soo Hyun Cho said.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of farmers under 25-years-old decreased 30 percent. SDSU Researchers Soo Hyun Cho and Kuo-Liang Chang are using a grant to find out why.

"The rural communities are supported by the farm business.  So, while farm population drops, what we see is a possible drop in income, which implies less infrastructure and the dying of small towns," Chang said.

Chang and Cho are studying what decisions determine whether a family farm is kept alive, along with the ecohomy's role.

"Most family farms or the members of family farms do have second jobs or more than two jobs," Cho said.

"The technology also pushes the farm size to get bigger and bigger. That means the young farmers, if they get lucky to have a farm to continue, they have a higher risk," Chang said.

That's something the Smiths are noticing. They say farmers now have to own more land and have more money to get started.

"The amount of capital it takes to get going is incredible. Even since I've come home from college, just the cost of doing business of putting in a corn or soybean crop, is nearly doubled," Brian said.

However, the Smiths feel they've been able to weather the changes and the uncertainty of farming because they raise cattle along with a variety of crops.

"So we're not committed to just one thing. If something is bad, maybe the other side is good, so that helps you get through those tough times," Paul said.

Still, Paul admits there have been times when it looks easier to trade in the tractor for another profession.

"When you see some people having the time off that they do, maybe you get a little envious of that, but in return I'm not so envious of their lifestyle either," Paul said.

It’s a lifestyle and a legacy the Smiths hope to pass on for generations to come.

"I have a five-month-old son. I'm not saying he is going to be made to farm, but hopefully I'm going to make it available to him if he chooses that career path, so he might be influenced a little bit. I'd be lying if I didn't say he wasn't wearing a John Deere hat when he's around," Brian said.

The $20,000 grant to study the reasons behind the decline in family farms is provided by the Harms Fund for Excellence in Management.

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