For many aging farmers, hanging it up can be difficult

For many aging farmers, hanging it up can be difficult

Gary Graves lost an eye when he was about 40, had prostate cancer, has a pacemaker and has had bone cancer for the last six years.

"I got a list of stuff when I go to the doctor of all the problems I've got," Graves said. "It's an ungodly amount."

And yet, at 80 years old, he's still farming.

"As long as you can do it, you just keep on doing it," said Graves, who farms near Sadorus. "I guess I'm just gonna keep farming as long as I can keep my feet underneath me."

Graves is part of a increasingly large group of older farmers.

About 12 percent of farmers are older than 75, according to the latest Census of Agriculture. In comparison, less than one percent of the total American labor force is older than 75, according to the Current Population Survey.

And the average age of a farmer has been steadily increasing since at least the 1980s, reaching 56.3 in the latest census.

"It's been going up forever," said Don Maxwell, an 82-year-old who farms in Tolono.

While this could present a problem if there weren't enough young farmers ready to take over, it could be mitigated by the consolidation of smaller farms and by increasingly productive machinery. This appears to be happening.

The number of large farms (bigger than 2,000 acres) has been steadily increasing while the number of farms has been relatively steady, according to the Census of Agriculture.

"They're getting so big," Maxwell said. "When one farmer builds up, you're kicking off others."

Even if there will be enough farmers, Illinois Farm Bureau spokesman Chris Magnuson said this long-term trend is placing a strain on rural communities, with shrinking populations and fewer young people, which hurts the rural schools and economy.

And this trend isn't expected to reverse. As equipment has gotten bigger and more expensive, farmers have been able to harvest more ground with fewer people, Magnuson said.

"Somewhat related, the capital costs to enter into farming are quite high, which can be challenging for a young farmer, particularly if they don't have a family that's part of farming," Magnuson said.

"I don't know how a young person would get started without help," said Gary Fisher, a 77-year-old farmer in Tolono.

He's been lucky enough to be part of a long line of farmers.

"My uncle told me I'm a seventh-generation farmer on my dad's side," he said. "My granddad had this 200 acres here ... and he owned the machinery, so it was pretty easy to step right in and take over when I was 18 years old."

With that kind of history behind you, it can be hard to step away from it.

"I still feel obligated to help and make the farm successful," Fisher said. "I mean, you can't just walk away from a lifetime investment."


Gary Graves

Gary Graves was probably always going to end up a farmer, like his dad and grandpa before him, but it took him a while to get there.

"I spent four years in the Air Force, from the time I was 17 until I was 21," Graves said about his service between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

After he returned, he married and had kids, worked in construction for about a year, then at a carpet place, then at J.M. Jones (what is now SuperValu) for 16 years.

Over that time, he gradually started farming more land.

"When I quit J.M. Jones, I was farming 200 acres plus working there, and then my wife's uncle retired, and I got 200 acres there," Graves said. "I ended up with about 560 acres. Then I was able to start farming full time, probably 30 to 40 years ago."

Around that time, he was working underneath a John Deere lawn mower trying to fix a corroded pin.

"I took a hammer and started tapping on it," he said. "Well what happened, a piece of that metal went back clear into my retina, and that's the reason I lost my eye."

But he's been able to compensate.

"You put your hand over it and operate that way," Graves said.

Nowadays, most farmers use GPS-guided autosteer on their tractors for planting and harvesting.

As a relatively small farmer with about 700 acres, Graves said he can't afford autosteer.

"It costs so much money, and then if the satellite goes down, you've got nothing," he said.

As he's gotten older, he's seen the price of equipment increase.

"The first combine, you could buy the combine and both heads for it for $15,000 or $16,000. That would have been about 1970," Graves said. "The one I've got is the littlest machine that they made at the time when I got it three years ago, and it listed for $345,000."

While prices have increased, so has productivity.

"It was more time consuming back then because you had smaller equipment," Graves said. "Back then, if you farmed 700 acres, you had to have five or six people, where now you only have a couple people farm the same amount."

The seeds and fertilizer have also improved. When he started, he was impressed when he made 30 bushels of soybeans an acre.

"Last year, my soybeans made 80 bushels an acre," he said.

He's been able to hire companies for specific tasks, and his son Bruce helps out on the farm.

"We used to cultivate; we don't do that anymore. We used to put anhydrous on; we don't do that anymore. We used to spray for weeds and stuff; we don't do that. (Illini) FS does all that stuff now," Graves said. "We don't do those things, and that's really lightened the load."

Graves said he plans to keep farming until he can't.

"The future for me is that I'm there till I die," he said.

After that, he said it's not up to him where the farm goes.

"I don't predict what's going to happen after I'm gone. A lot of people think they have control of it," he said, disagreeing. "When you're gone, you're gone, and your say is done."

Until then, Graves figures farming is good for his health.

"My doctor said, 'If you can do it, keep doing it,'" Graves said. "I took a little stake in that because it's the fifth or sixth year (of bone cancer), and I'm still here."


Don Maxwell

Like Graves, Don Maxwell spent four years in the Air Force in the 1950s.

After that, he went to Southern Illinois University, and then "I got tired of that and came back and started farming," he said.

Having grown up on a farm, he always figured he'd become a farmer.

"I didn't know anything else," Maxwell said. "I was driving a tractor at 9, 10 years old,"

When he started farming, he had all used equipment.

"The old technology was so slow, you kind of grew up with it," Maxwell said. "Now it's like it's dumped on you."

He recently had a $600 antenna installed on the roof of his combine.

"Now we can make maps, but I haven't downloaded the software to make the maps," he said. "You just continually have to keep up with it."

His son Doug helps him out, and they've split up the farm.

"Taking over farming is not easy," Maxwell said. "And my boy who's helped me, he's bought half of my equipment. He bought half the planter, half the wagon, half of this and that. So he's got his foot in the door. These other guys, they'd have to take out a great big loan to start out."

The farm is now in its fifth generation, Doug Maxwell said.

"It's neat to see it go from the mid- to late-1800s to early 2000s, transitioning from a big dairy farm to more of a corn and soybeans farm," Doug Maxwell said.

He's not sure what will happen to the farm after his generation.

"We don't really have anybody lined up after us," Doug Maxwell said. "We don't really know what's going to happen."

The Maxwells have lost a farm before, about 10 years ago when they lost their old farmstead to the University of Illinois.

"We've kind of gone through this already," Doug Maxwell said. "It was a really emotional time."

However, Don Maxwell said he doesn't plan to quit anytime soon.

"Some days, I feel like saying heck with it. The body don't keep up so good some days," he said. "But physically, I'm in pretty dang good shape. But if I go around and see other old people, they can hardly walk because they've been sitting around."

Besides, he said about continuing farming, "it's your way of life."


Gary Fisher

Gary Fisher started farming in 1959 on land his granddad bought in 1926.

He grew up active in FFA and 4-H and "never really went to college," he said. "I was more of a livestock and a farmer guy than I was a student."

He used to keep himself busy with just 200 acres, as equipment was much smaller then.

"I used to shuck corn with a two-row picker and haul in two wagons and dump them in the crib, and then take 'em back out, hook them to the picker and pick two more loads," he said.

When he bought his granddad's machinery in 1958, it cost $5,000.

"That included a tractor plow disk, not a combine but a corn picker and a couple wagons," he said. "You can't buy much for $5,000 anymore. ... The big ones now are more than half a million."

He said technology has been the biggest change for farmers, especially in the machinery.

"I started with a 50-horsepower, two-wheel drive, narrow-front tractor, and we've got a tractor now that's got tracks and 475 horsepower," Fisher said. "That's quite a change."

Equipment today also now has monitors that predict yield and GPS-powered autosteer.

He's also seen improvements in the seeds.

"The drought tolerance in corn is considerably better," Fisher said.

Fisher farms with his son, Jeff Fisher, who said he's enjoyed working with his dad.

"He's got lots of experience and has been a good teacher, and he's very dedicated," Jeff Fisher said.

He expects he'll still be farming at 77, like his dad.

"I'll still probably be in debt then, so I'll have to keep farming," Jeff Fisher said. "When you buy land, it takes a while to pay for, especially when crop prices are at break-even prices to our expenses."

He hopes to pass the farm on to his kids.

But he said farming "isn't for the faint of heart."

"It's not easy, and you have to be dedicated, and you have to have help," Jeff Fisher said. "My father helped me a lot getting into the business. I would not have been able to afford it."

Seven generations of farmers in, Gary Fisher said the farm is now a part of who he is.

"You know, you can take the boy off the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the boy," he said. "And so I guess that's where I'm at."

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