Wisconsin’s farmers are aging out of the profession.
The average Wisconsin farmer was 56 in 2012, according to the most recent USDA census.
There are plenty of draws for new farmers passionate about working with the land and building their own business. But for young people who want to become farmers, there are a number of hurdles to clear.
"Farming can be isolating. It can be frustrating. You’re also at the mercy of the weather and global markets and things that you can’t control," Dori Eder said. "Having a solid support system of other farmers is crucial to getting people through the rough patches in their farming career."
Eder is the coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Program, teaching the business side of farming to those new in the profession.
She’s also a farmer herself, who made her own mid-career transition after years in public service.
Farming can be intimidating to individuals with no family history. Eder recommends new farmers connect with a mentor who can help teach them the ropes.
"For most people, working on a farm and having a farm mentor are the best education they can get in terms of production," Eder said.
Others may be put off by the financial burden. Farming often requires an additional mortgage, which can be a huge undertaking for a young person or an individual with a large amount of existing debt.
"Very beginning farmers often find themselves trying to get huge mortgages without having the income or credit to qualify for what they need," Eder said.
The financial side was a hurdle for Eder and her husband, as well.
"The reason I’m able to farm is because my husband still works off-farm. And that provides a stable source of income for our family," she said.
She’s not alone. A vast majority of farmers have some sort of off-farm income, Eder said. Farming is considered high-risk, and bankers aren’t quick to hand mortgages to young farmers with a large amount of student debt, for example.
Certain USDA programs can help finance farmland purchases, but often require years on the job.
"Being able to demonstrate to a banker that your small farm plans are profitable, and that you’re going to be able to pay back that loan out of your farm profits is also a challenge," Eder said. "Because there’s so much capitalization that needs to happen to get up and running, that often farms don’t turn a profit for several years."
The good news, Eder said, is many new farmers go into the field because they’re passionate about agriculture education and food production, and they want to share that with others. That’s not only a good mission, but it can also add supplemental income. Agritourism is a growing industry.
"Farms need to be thinking about diverse streams of income in order to protect themselves," she said.
This article was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.