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Columbia Missourian

MU online farming tool, class encourage students into the industry

By Caroline Bauman
January 30, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
An online tool developed at MU and a class at the university are helping students return to their family farms.

COLUMBIA — The memory of gathering around the dinner table with his uncles and grandparents after a good day of farming keeps calling Andrew Perry back to his roots.

"I love the atmosphere of a family farm," said Perry, a junior in agricultural economics at MU. "I spent some time working for an agribusiness firm, but there seemed to be something missing. Working alongside my family and watching something grow, that strikes a deep tune in my chest."

Perry spent much of his childhood at his family’s farm in Kirksville. Despite the uncertainties of the farming industry, Perry said, his dream after he graduates is to return to the farm. 

For the young, aspiring farmer, determining expenses and profit can be daunting, he said. 

A new online tool developed by the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute and an MU farming preparation class share the goal to help make it easier for young farmers to break into the industry.

Funded by a United States Department of Agriculture grant, the Farm Cost and Return Tool, or Farm CART, allows farmers to simulate what their farm will look like financially over the next five years. Beginning farmers can use the tool to estimate start-up costs and future returns, and established farmers can find better ways to grow their operations.    

"This tool is very useful to anyone in agriculture, especially young people thinking of getting started," said Peter Zimmel, the institute’s program director. "You may be thinking about purchasing 100 acres for corn but have no idea what that will cost. You can utilize the tool to make more successful decisions." 

Free to the public, farmers can customize Farm CART to their state, county, acreage and choice of crop or livestock. Based on the institute’s annual baseline projections and USDA data, the tool predicts prices, revenue, total costs and net returns. 

"It’s very easy to ignore the hard facts of finance," Perry said. "There’s a fine line between success and failure when going back to the farm, and I think FAPRI’s tool will help young, aspiring farmers discover where they stand.”

The grant was provided through the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program in an effort to educate people nationwide about the costs and benefits of starting a farm, Zimmel said. He and his team received about $500,000 in 2009 to be distributed over three years. They finished Farm CART in September 2012.

"We worked hard to make it as easy to use as any standard Web page," Zimmel said. "The ideal goal is for someone thinking of getting into farming to use the tool to see if it’s financially viable for them to farm."

The rising average age and projected decrease of American farmers has renewed interest in funding beginning farmers programs, according to the USDA website The number of farmers and ranchers is predicted to decrease by 8 percent from 2008 to 2018.

"There’s a very expensive barrier for young farmers wanting to get into the business," Farm CART programmer Scott Gerlt said. "With a struggling economy and a lot of farm consolidations, it’s just tough right now."

A growing concern 

People 65 and older own more than 19,000 farms in Missouri, while farmers younger than 25 own 307 farms, according to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture from 2007. Farmers 25 to 44 years old own more than 5,000 farms, and those 35 to 54 years old own more than 19,000. 

Nationwide, only 5 percent of principal farm operators are younger than 35, according to the census. 

The gap has continued to grow since that information was gathered, said Kevin Moore, MU associate professor of agricultural economics. The economic climate and immediate uncertainties make it difficult for the next generation to return to the farm. 

"What we’re seeing is the older generation living longer and staying on the farm longer," Moore said. "It’s an increasing challenge to make farming look attractive to the younger generations, as its is by no means an easy or stable job."

Two decades ago, Moore began teaching Returning to the Farm, a class that aids students in overcoming the economic and personal difficulties of the farming industry. About 150 students have completed the course, and three-quarters of them have gone into farming, he said.

"We have the same mission" as Farm CART, Moore said. "We want to help kids make the best decision possible, whether to return to the family farm or start from scratch."

Perry, a member of this semester’s 14-person class, said it brings to light important details of the financial and mental feasibility of returning to his family farm.

"Just because I’m a third-generation member of this farm doesn’t mean I have to be a hired hand," Perry said. "The course has made me think about what my value is and what I can contribute to make my farm better."

Room for hope

Though the low number of young farmers might seem disheartening, there is optimism that family farmers in Missouri will be successful for generations to come, Moore said.

"I’ve know the passion that these kids have," Moore said. "The future of family farming in Missouri is not all doomsday and gloom." 

Some aspiring farmers, such as MU sophomore Aubrey Ellison, hope to bring back to their farms new knowledge they have gained at college.

"This is just my calling," said Ellison, who grew up on a dairy farm in Mount Vernon. "But when I go back, I want to do things differently. I want to switch to a pasture-grazed farm, because I know this will be more successful."

USDA grants, statewide loan programs and classes such as Returning to the Farm have a renewed mission to provide young people with a foothold in this industry, Moore said.

Zimmel said he agrees that young farmers have plenty of room for hope.  

"Many producers grew up on farms, went to school and now are branching out to their own farms or returning to improve their family farms," Zimmel said. "The numbers are dwindling, but there are still bright people in agriculture. There is still optimism."

The passion for farming doesn’t stem from a love of money or success, Perry said.

"For me, this is just the way I want to live my life, with great family, doing what I love," Perry said. "That outweighs all of the risks."

 Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey