Pennsylvania’s farmers are getting old, creating an unsure future for his or her communities and industries
A typical work day for Terry Shields starts at 6 a.m. and ends well after dark. As a grain farmer in Jefferson County, Shields’ job takes it all.
In the fall, he typically spends more than 10 hours straight piloting a combine harvester with his yellow lab mix Maya at his feet. The towering machine mows over the grain and separates the chaff from the grain.
Maya, a yellow laboratory mix, is Farmer Terry Shields’ dedicated companion at work.
Last spring, Shields stayed outside after 11 p.m. one night, planting a cornfield just yards from his home in Clover Township.
“There are times in agriculture, I call it, it’s go-time. You just have to go, ”Shields said as he sat in front of his house on a cloudless day in mid-October. “You could work until one or two in the morning and sleep three or four hours and get up before the sun comes up.”
Shields grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his 1,200-acre farm, which is about an hour and a half northeast of Pittsburgh by car.
The 62-year-old farmer said he had to work long hours to make a profit. But he also loves work.
“I joke with my friends that if I could find a patch for farming I would be the first to sign up because I’m addicted to it. I’m doing it and I’m really enjoying it, ”he said.
But given his age, he was quick to add, “I am genuinely aware that I will probably have to pull the reins a bit back and slow down.”
Shields said that as he gets older, he wants to spend more time with his wife, do more volunteer work, and just relax.
Even so, he said it would “hurt” to go away.
A combine uses a head about 30 feet wide to cut crops from the ground.
“I’ve worked in agriculture and drive tractors for at least 55 years,” he said. “So yeah, to make that monumental lifestyle change and know that there isn’t a reset or restart button to press … once you’ve made the call, better be prepared to leave because you.” does not go back. “
But Shields said the farm hasn’t been the same since his older brother retired last year. He and Shields were the fourth generation to run the family business.
Shields doesn’t know when he’s going to sell, and he doesn’t know who is going to buy the farm. If it were up to him, a younger farmer would take over, but Shields doubts anyone can afford the investment.
“It seems inevitable that the farm with my brother and I will end,” he said, his voice fading.
Retirement is often a tough issue for farmers, said Darlene Livingston, Pennsylvania Farm Link executive director and a farmer herself.
It naturally raises thoughts of one’s own mortality, she said, and may represent an early form of death for some.
Agriculture was “her elixir of life. It was her whole life, ”said Livingston. “Well, it’s really a huge passion, and it’s very hard to give up.”
Livingston’s organization helps farmland owners meet potential buyers or tenants, partly through an online database.
Darlene Livingston, Pennsylvania Farm Link executive director, runs an Indiana County cattle ranch with her husband.
Livingston said it can take years to transfer a farm from one generation to the next, with the original owner taking care of the new operator and gradually handing over control.
“It’s a slow transition,” she said. “General recommendations are to transfer assets in the 40s and 50s” [and] to start with equipment and things like that. And then the last thing would be the handover of the farm. “
But even with years of planning there is no guarantee.
Don Kretschmann ran an organic farm in New Sewickley Township for over 45 years before retiring in January. He started planning for the transition in 2011 and had people eager to take over the business. But they eventually left her due to personal circumstances or to take other jobs, said Kretschmann.
Despite advertisements in agricultural magazines across the country and some inquiries, Kretschmann has still not found a new tenant. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recorded Kretschmann’s struggle in January.
Since then, Kretschmann agreed to lease a small portion of the farm, but that agreement failed because the tenants, Kretschman said, did not have the ability to farm large areas.
Terry Shields, a grain farmer in Jefferson County, sells soybeans in Japanese markets.
Kretschmann said there just weren’t enough people who did farming as a serious profession.
“It’s an undervalued profession, let’s put it this way, very undervalued,” he said. “It’s sad because agriculture is so important. I mean, it really is the food of mankind. … We can’t just go out and look for food in trees. We need farmers. “
Agricultural labor is expected to become even more scarce in the coming years.
A 2018 study predicted that the state will have 75,000 vacancies in the agglomeration by 2027. This deficit corresponds to about a quarter of today’s workforce. Researchers say there won’t be enough skilled and migrant workers to fill the void as current farmers age.
In 2017, more than half of the people who run Pennsylvania’s farms were age 55 or older. Pennsylvania’s agricultural communities face an uncertain future as they quit their jobs.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding speaks during a press conference at Hill Top Academy in Mechanicsburg on Friday, August 27, 2021 highlighting the state’s “Farm to School” scholarship program. At that time, the scholarship program had funded 84 projects in the US state.
“The intergenerational transfer of farms is a really important discussion,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding. “We have to be there to help new, aspiring farmers make this transition and not just assume that they have all the support structures around them to be successful.”
Redding said his industry recognizes the need for people development and he is confident that recent investments in apprenticeships, urban farms and school-based programs will help young people see a future in agriculture.
Such initiatives are vital to Pennsylvania’s economy, Redding said, given that agriculture generates nearly one-fifth of the country’s gross national product. A 2018 study found that agriculture is more than just growing crops and raising livestock. In addition to manufacturing agricultural machinery, logging, and landscaping, it also encompasses the sprawling food industry.
There is a shortage of small butchers across the country, but COVID-19 underscored the problem as outbreaks of the disease forced some of the country’s largest meat processors to temporarily close facilities.
John (left) and Sukey Jamison run a meat processing facility outside of Latrobe, where they slaughter their own lambs and cattle from other farmers.
But outside of Latrobe, John Jamison couldn’t sell a meat processing plant that he and his wife Sukey had put up for sale about a year ago.
“For years we have heard of the shortage of small systems in this country and [that] you can’t slaughter animals, ”said Jamison. “So we thought there was interest in it, but there isn’t.”
The Jamisons also raise sheep and lambs. You bought your system about 30 years ago.
Jamison believes the facility didn’t attract buyers largely because it’s USDA certified and requires daily inspections.
“I think a lot of people are scared of it. They don’t think the reward is more than the risk, and it is, ”said Jamison.
Lost lands, lost communities
The Jamisons said if they can’t sell the plant this year they will let the business die.
That would hurt farmers who depend on the ability to prepare their meat for market. In some places, this ripple effect can cause entire agricultural communities to shrink. But in other places these communities are transforming into something entirely different.
Courtesy Jamison Farm
John and Sukey Jamison have long been selling lamb at fine dining restaurants in Pittsburgh and across the country. They stopped marketing to restaurants when the coronavirus pandemic halted indoor gatherings.
Like Kretschmann, Republican Senator Elder Vogel is one of the few remaining holdouts in New Sewickley Township, which is on the eastern edge of Beaver County.
He’s always been a farmer, and the corn fields run right behind his house all the way down to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
As farms filled the landscape from Vogel’s childhood, he found that the area is “now full of houses”.
“My father and everyone else, they all got up old age, and some of them sold the farms and retired. And others died and their children sold the farms, ”he said.
When Interstate 79 opened in the 1970s, a building boom set in in Cranberry Township, just minutes from Vogel’s 370-acre farm. Property values soared and new farmers could not afford to buy the property themselves.
Pennsylvania Republican Senator Elder Vogel represents all or part of Beaver, Butler, and Lawrence counties north of Pittsburgh. The lifelong farmer was first elected to the state Senate in 2008.
Vogel said it was a permanent loss to agriculture.
“Land is a finite resource that we have, and every morning you cover with houses is another morning you won’t be growing crops,” he said.
Pennsylvania lost six percent of its arable land between 2012 and 2017, according to federal estimates. Vogel supports economic growth, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of agriculture: without a balanced approach, communities like the one in which he grew up disappear.
“Back then you had neighbors [who] lived on either side of the street, only half a mile away. You would ask your neighbor to borrow a hay rake or a car or something or whatever and there is no one left to do that with, ”he said.
But he tried to attract more people to agricultural work.
In 2019, for example, he proposed a tax credit for farmers who transfer land or other assets to young farmers. The bill received unanimous approval. However, since it passed, only about two dozen beginners have been certified to participate in the program, indicating that more work may still be required.