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To Stay on the Land, American Farmers Add Extra Jobs

25 Feb 2018 6:07 pm
By Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman 

Craig Myhre, a farmer in western Wisconsin, is trying to make a living off 600 acres of crops and a small herd of beef cattle. He also hires himself out to harvest other farmers' fields, earning money to make payments on his combine.

It's still tough to make ends meet, despite putting in 12- to 16-hour days. In 2015, he added yet another job, as a mail carrier.

"We're constantly doing something around here to keep things moving," said Mr. Myhre, who is 50 years old. His wife is a physician's assistant, and sometimes climbs into the seat of a combine herself. Together, they are raising five children and trying to maintain a farm in Wisconsin's rolling hills that has been in Mr. Myhre's family since 1952. Sometimes, that means missing his sons' high-school football games, and staying home while friends in town take vacations. "I struggle to pay myself sometimes," he said.

Most U.S. farm households can't solely rely on farm income, turning what was once a way of life into a part-time job. On average, 82% of U.S. farm household income is expected to come from off-farm work this year, up from 53% in 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Off-farm work has become more important since a slump in prices for corn, wheat and other farm commodities over the past five years has cut total U.S. farm income in half. Last week, the USDA said income from farming is expected to fall further over the next decade. Now, picking up work in construction or truck driving is required for many farmers to fund seed and fertilizer purchases, and keep current on loan payments for tractors and land.

"Most farmers are still on their land today because of their off-farm jobs," said Dan Kowalski, head of research at CoBank, one of the largest U.S. agricultural lenders. "Without these jobs, these farms would be consolidating at a faster rate."

U.S. food producers as a result are increasingly exposed to economic forces far beyond the fields. Many farms have become reliant not just on sales of crops and livestock, but on the health of rural businesses such as trucking companies and manufacturing plants. Those jobs have been slow to bounce back from the 2008 financial crisis. As of mid-2016, the number of jobs outside of metro areas remained 3% below their prerecession peak, while those in metro areas had grown 5%, according to federal data.

Rural manufacturers such as Iowa's Pella Corp. and Hy-Capacity Inc., which rebuilds tractor parts, increasingly support agricultural production by hiring smaller-scale farmers.

At Pella, a maker of windows and patio doors, Tom Comstock is one of dozens of farmers who squeeze in field work before and after shifts at the plant. Farmers take time off when forecasts show stretches of dry weather ahead and put in early vacation requests for planting and harvest. Production manager Shannon Arthur said farmers' empty seats on clear spring and autumn days sometimes are noticeable, so Pella cross-trains employees so they can fill in for one another.

Mr. Comstock, 53, who farms 325 acres and raises around 80 cows and calves near Sheridan, Iowa, has worked at Pella for 22 years. He said his paycheck helps his family get by. From time to time he has borrowed money from his company-funded retirement account to help fund livestock purchases and other expenses.

On a recent winter day, Mr. Comstock checked the freight slip for a window shipment bound for New Jersey. He had waked before dawn to chop a hole in a frozen pond so that his cattle could drink. Some days get long, he said, but "I definitely wouldn't still be in farming if I didn't have a full-time job."

Farmers say their independence and satisfaction from growing a crop keeps them holding down other jobs while working the land. For many farmers who work at Pella, expanding their farms to a size that could provide a complete family income is out of the question. An acre of Iowa's rich, black soil in the area sells for $4,000 to $8,000, and the state's average is four times what it was in 2000, according to Iowa State University. Land rental rates in the state have more than doubled in that time.

Other expenses have steadily climbed. For an average corn farmer, the cost for an acre's worth of seeds has nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years, while fertilizer has more than doubled, according to the USDA. But corn yields grew only 36% over that time, and the price received for the sale of a bushel of corn gained about 31%.

"If you look at ag commodity prices over time, they haven't kept up with inflation," said CoBank's Mr. Kowalski. "Farmers need to produce more from their land, which they have. But in many cases, that's not enough."

About half of 1,062 U.S. farm families surveyed relied on health insurance from an outside employer, according to research published this year by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association.

Brian Briggeman, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, said most farmers couldn't repay the debts they incur to run their farms without an outside paycheck.

Farmers can secure financing totaling tens of millions of dollars each year from a vast web of creditors including commercial banks, Farm Credit institutions, government agencies, co-ops, farm suppliers, credit cards and family members.

Crop supplies are often purchased in the fall, with loans paid off after the following year's harvest. Some farmers use 30-day lines of credit from co-ops or farm suppliers, and others lease millions of dollars of machinery from equipment dealers.

Galen Rozenboom, who raises crops on about 140 acres near Sully, Iowa, keeps track of his farm's expenses in lined notebooks, along with the dates he fertilizes his fields, sprays for weeds, and harvests his corn and soybeans. By Dec. 1 each year he has bought the next year's seeds, chemicals and fertilizer, and he sets out a price target at which he will sell his crops -- soybeans typically pay for seeds and chemicals, while his corn will cover unexpected equipment repairs and other expenses. Mr. Rozenboom, 58, says he mainly relies on the accounting skills he learned in his high school Future Farmers of America courses: "Two and two still make four."

Larry Stenger, regional president at First Mid-Illinois Bank & Trust in Sullivan, Ill., said farmers in his region often use their trucking fleets for off-farm work in winter months, transporting grain for nearby elevators or hauling goods for other trucking firms. "There are opportunities out there for those looking for it," Mr. Stenger said.

Some larger-scale farmers, who dominate U.S. food production, plow some crop profits into trucking or supply companies to diversify income and insulate themselves from agriculture's price swings.

Dave Nelson, who farms 5,000 acres near Fort Dodge, Iowa, invested in a group of equipment dealerships, selling construction and farm machinery. He and a partner also acquired an e-commerce site to peddle parts and farming gadgets online.

"When the farm economy is down, what's up? The consumer economy, and building," said Mr. Nelson. "The farmer of tomorrow has got to be highly skilled as a businessman."

Technology makes much part-time work possible. Larger, satellite-guided tractors and high-speed planters let farmers sow fields in days, compared to weeks in decades past. Wireless-enabled equipment streams data on seeds planted and crop yields to farmers' tablets and computers, helping to automate record-keeping.

J.D. Myers, 42, a farmer near Humboldt, Iowa, does double duty from the seat of his GPS-enabled combine. Behind the wheel -- largely steered by satellite -- he can harvest his own grain while calling and messaging pork producers, to whom Mr. Myers sells confinements and equipment. Wearing a noise-canceling Bluetooth headset, Mr. Myers chats with customers as he looks up price quotes on his Android tablet and makes notes in Google Docs. "I can talk as I'm farming and not really miss a beat," said Mr. Myers.

Still, outside work can hurt the ability to take on more acres. Some farm management companies, which often act as middlemen between absentee landowners and the farmers who grow crops on the rented land, prefer farmers who can devote all their time and attention to raising crops throughout the growing season and aren't splitting time with another job.

Chris Morrow, a farmer in northwestern Missouri, rises four mornings a week at 4:30 a.m. and drives an hour to his outside job at Herzog Railroad Services Inc., in Falls City, Neb. He works a 10-hour shift inspecting inbound railcars in need of repairs.

Six months out of the year, he then drives home, climbs into the seat of a tractor or combine, and tends the 350 acres of corn and soybeans he farms with his father-in-law until well past dark. He spends weekends planting or harvesting, and last year, he used eight of his 10 vacation days to do field work or manage his small cattle herd.

"From February to May, there's not much family time," said Mr. Morrow, 32. "From October to mid-November, it's go, go, go."

During the growing season, he passes up shopping trips to Kansas City with his wife, Meagan, and skips trout fishing with friends. But he tries hard never to miss the baseball, basketball or football games of his 14- and 8-year old sons.

He said he would like to quit his day job and farm full time. But his half of the $14,000 the farm netted last year isn't nearly enough to support the family, even when added to his wife's income from a job in town. Much of that profit will be plowed back into the farm, hopefully reducing the size of the loan he needs from the bank to plant crops this year, he said. Some will go to repairing the porch on the family's century-old farmhouse.

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February 25, 2018 13:07 ET (18:07 GMT)

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