by Audrey Dutton
Three generations of farmers will spend this summer working the 400 acres of soil known as Sunny View Farms, on the outer edge of Caldwell. The Freeman family grows everything from sugar beets and onions to wheat and seeds that other farmers rely on to grow their own crops.
Sid Freeman, 53, is the owner. His septuagenarian father, Loren, is “retired,” which really just means he works less, Sid Freeman says.
The youngest Sunny View farmer is 21-year-old Wes Freeman, a student at Boise State University who expects to take over the business someday. He hopes to share the farm with his older brother, Justin, who works in agribusiness up north.
They come from a long line of farmers – seven generations now.
“Each generation (before Sid Freeman) has stood on its own, nothing passed on to the next,” Sid Freeman said. He bought his parents’ farm and will pass everything on to his sons, and he is proud “to be able to change that and forge the future – and we know that future is in agriculture.”
Midsize family farms such as Sunny View are becoming less common.
According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census, the family- or farmer-owned operation is still king in Idaho, making up 83.5 percent of all farms in the state. But that’s down from a peak of 88.1 percent 10 years earlier and the lowest since at least 1997.
“The trend has been that you’ve got larger operations that are growing, smaller operations that are growing … and the middle-size ones are the ones that are disappearing,” said Neil Rimbey, Caldwell range economist for the University of Idaho Extension.
Meanwhile, corporate-owned farms are making gains. They were 7.2 percent of all Idaho farms in 2012, up from a low of 4.9 percent 10 years earlier and the highest share since at least 1997.
Rimbey cautions that “corporate-owned” isn’t synonymous with “large” and that some corporations are family businesses. “It isn’t a move to corporate agriculture,” he said. “There are still operations that are family farms or ranches that you would categorize as big operations.”
Sid Freeman notes that some family farms may become corporations because of liability. “One mishap could end up costing you literally the farm,” he said, and the Freemans are looking at incorporating for that reason.
THE VANISHING MIDDLE
Larger farms have economies of scale to weather volatility and rising costs, while small farms are bolstered by the popularity of farmers markets and hobby-esque farming, economists said.
“I think we’re going to see greater incomes off of smaller-size farms” because of the trend toward local, sustainable food production, Sid Freeman said.
The farms in between? They’re caught in some strong winds. Baby boomer farmers are getting older, and their children aren’t as eager to take over the farms, economists said. The dollars that farmers and ranchers spend on their crops or livestock has more than doubled in the past 15 years. All of this breeds temptation to sell to a neighbor or well-funded competitor.
“We’re seeing some urbanization of farm ground, too,” said C. Wilson Gray, Twin Falls district extension economist for the University of Idaho. “Farm ground being converted to subdivisions (is) kind of a slow-moving factor in reducing the amount of farm ground.”
The average farm in 2012 spanned 474 acres, 20 acres larger than in the previous census in 2007, though just a few acres larger than in 1997 and 2002.
John Thompson, public relations director for the Idaho Farm Bureau, said the federal estate tax – something the bureau has long pushed to be repealed – is enough to keep some younger generations from taking over their parents’ farm.
“Your family already owns the farm, and you can’t turn it over (to children) without paying the government a big pile of money,” Thompson said.
Rimbey said ranchers face similar challenges. “Their kids don’t want to come back (after college) and have anything to do with it, because they’ve seen their parents squabbling with federal and state agencies over grazing,” he said.
Having to pay money to keep the business – and the lifestyle of being a farm owner – is too discouraging for some, Thompson said.
“Kids don’t want to work that hard for a little amount of money,” he said.
Idaho’s 24,816 farms had net cash income of $2.7 billion in 2012, about $109,000 each, according to the USDA. The median hourly pay for an agricultural manager is $26.38, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.
And it’s not a trend that’s easy to reverse.
“For a young guy or gal to get into farming, there’s a huge investment up front,” Thompson said. “A lot of the crops we raise in Idaho – potatoes and sugar beets in particular – take specialized equipment” at a high price.
That’s partly why Sid Freeman’s parents were “overwhelmed” when they learned his children had shown an interest in someday owning their home and the “home place” farm.
“They were very, very happy about that,” Sid Freeman said. So happy, in fact, that they made their son a “very good deal” on their property. (He previously rented farmland from them.)
WISDOM PASSED DOWN
Wes Freeman knows it will be years, maybe decades, before he takes over. He is preparing by majoring in business while spending his summers on the tractor.
His peers often question his career choice. His response? To ask whether they like the meals they eat.
“My earliest memories are setting water (siphon tubes for irrigation) with mom and dad when I was 5,” he said. As he and his brother took part in 4-H and Future Farmers of America and did chores on the farm, they learned from their parents and hired farm workers.
“When it comes to end-of-the-year book work, that’s where I have a lot left to learn,” Wes Freeman said.
He adds that in Caldwell, smaller independent farms are still thriving. It’s easier to survive when you can trade with neighbors – hiring the farmer next door to use his new tractor on your land, in exchange for his hiring you to haul his spuds later in the year.
Wes Freeman has heard that farming near Ada County and in parts of East Idaho is more competitive.
“Where we’re at, we’re blessed to have pretty decent neighbors. It’s not a cutthroat deal,” he said. “The future is bright.”