Farming Succession: Future Farmers Drying Up

Just outside Baileys Harbor, Paul Gray milks 43 cows with his brother John on a farm they took over from their late father Harold in 1980. Their pasture forms a picturesque western entrance to the town, their cows often seen grazing near the corner of County highways F and EE between milking sessions in the Gray-Aire Dairy barn across the road.

The dairy has been in operation at this location since 1960, but when the brothers call it a career in a few years, it might be quitting time for the farm as well.

From a small home on County F, Paul and his wife Mary have raised an international family. All four children went away to four-year universities. His daughter Samantha lives in China, and his two sons, Matt and Peter, live in Indianapolis and Louisville. His youngest daughter, Madalyn, is studying at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Paul doesn’t expect any of them to come back to the farm.

“We don’t see anyone farming here in 10 years,” Paul said. “We hope the kids buy the land to keep it for hunting or a house, but none of them want to farm.”

While the kids all grew up working on the farm, baling hay, milking cows, and picking rocks between sports practices and school, Paul and Mary never pushed the kids to keep the farm going.

“We told them to go out and do what you want to do,” he said. “You don’t want to put someone in a place where a little while later they find they don’t want to do this.”

With milk prices dropping and land prices rising, Paul said he doesn’t see how someone could buy the farm and get out of debt.

“When we bought it from my dad, that pretty much was my dad’s retirement,” he said. That’s the retirement plan for most farmers who are fortunate enough to have a next generation interested in farming.

“Your 401k is your farm,” said Don Niles, of Peninsula Pride Farms. “If mom and dad are 70 and now want to retire, move to town, and yet they want the next generation to take over the farm, it’s very difficult for the next generation to take on the farm debt and expenses and pay their parents off the blue sky of the business. It became harder and harder to transition because if you didn’t buy the farm from your mom and dad they couldn’t have any retirement but if you had to buy it from them you couldn’t afford to farm yourself.”

In Kewaunee County, Lee Kinnard has cultivated potential successors outside the family. He hired a local farm kid 13 years ago who he said is now coming on as a junior partner in the farm.

“We are really getting creative in saying, hey these kids are farmers, let’s have a way to have them farming,” Kinnard said.

Like the Grays, Rob Kiehnau is a second generation farmer who took over from his father, Allen. His kids, Jared and Kirsten, have no interest in farming. “That doesn’t bother me at all, it’s a tough lifestyle,” he said. “It’s hard to enjoy a lot of things. You go to the wedding, buy the present, but never get the meal because you gotta go do the chores.”

But Kiehnau got lucky. His wife’s brother, Andy Kaczmarek, is a partner in the farm. Kaczmarek is 18 years younger than Rob, which allows them to make longer-term plans for the farm, like installing a robot milker four years ago.

“If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “A robot is a large investment, and we’ve gradually made a lot of improvements.” The robot milker saves wear and tear on his body and allows him to spend more time doing the things he loves about being a farmer – the electrical, plumbing, carpentry, the challenges of keeping everything running and improving, and being outside.

Eric and Julaine Olson are grappling with similar questions. They own Olson Family Farms in southern Door County with Eric’s brother Rich. They love the farm life, especially since they installed a robot milker in 2013, but they’re torn over whether they want to encourage their three teenage children to go into the business.

“It is hard to encourage any of your kids to pursue such a demanding profession,” Julaine said. “As a farmer you work in the sun on the hottest of the summer days and are outside on the coldest winter ones. You will wake before the sun every single day with no weekends off.  During the busy field work season you will have to put in long hours. There is no time clock to tell you when your work day is done and there is no such thing as 40 hours a week. On top of all this, the milk prices, as well as the crop prices, are very low, which in turns decides how much farmers get paid for their hard work.”

In spite of those drawbacks, Julaine said she’s careful not to discourage her kids from thinking about a farmer’s life.

“Farming is not a job, it is a lifestyle,” she said. “The long hours, the sometimes harsh weather, the risky economy become less important. Farmers have a passion that is undeniable. They work long hours but it is with family by their side. They teach their kids responsibility, work ethic, family values and trusting in God. They teach their kids to be proud of a good day’s work and to learn from their mistakes when things don’t go so well. Farming becomes ingrained in your soul. So if we have taught our kids to have a passion of their own for farming how can we deny that?”

Ultimately, it’s not up to them.

“We in a way want them to come back, but it has got to be their choice too,” Eric said.

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