BLOOMINGTON — Rush Olson returned to his family’s farm in June because, he said, working the land is in his blood. At 29, he’s one of Illinois’ younger farmers: The average age of a farmer is 56, according to University of Illinois Extension.
Farmers below the age of 50 made up only about 30 percent of all Illinois farmers in 2011. In 2002, they made up roughly half, based on data from the Illinois Farm Business Farm Management Association.
Younger farmers are having difficulty breaking into agriculture, and the reasons mostly boil down to land and capital, said Terra Brockman, founder of Bloomington-based agricultural organization, The Land Connection.
“Capital is tight across the board, and it’s not just for our new farmers, but it impacts them as well,” Brockman said.
Olson’s father and uncle leased him some of the family’s land near McLean, with a plan for him to gradually buy them out over a long period. Without that connection, it would’ve been almost impossible for him to get his start, Olson said.
“That’s about the only way we could really see this happening,” he said. “With how much money equipment costs, it’s tough for somebody coming back into the farm. You need to put millions into the farm, and you don’t have it.”
Farmers in their 20s and 30s looking to buy their own land and starting their own farming operation face a tough market.
Farmland in McLean County sold for an average of $11,000 to $14,000 per acre in 2012 — a 20 percent increase over 2011, according to data from the Illinois Society of Professional Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.
Those who do have land hang onto it, Olson said.
“Everybody is competing against each other for property,” he said. “It’s tough, because you’re out there bidding against your neighbors and your friends and you don’t want to ruin those relationships.”
Even finding a relatively small plot can be hard.
Dylan Cook, 26, raises organic vegetables at a small farm in rural Bloomington. He graduated from the Land Connection’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings program that helps prospective farmers put together a business plan.
With savings and federal farm loans, he was able to get his start near where his own family has farmed for generations.
Before he started battling the bugs and fungus that constantly threaten all crops, he faced a long hunt for the 2.5 acres he now owns and another five acres he rents.
“I spent the winters knocking on doors,” Cook said of his search. “I definitely had to pull strings.”
Finding work on somebody else’s land also can be hard for young farmers, said Bart Bittner, 39, of Heyworth, who in 2010 returned to the family farm his father and grandfather work east of Bloomington.
“One of the issues is that the operations that are out there have to have room for someone to come back,” Bittner said. “There’s got to be some give and take between the generations.”
Young people with college degrees in agricultural topics have other options, Bittner said.
“There are opportunities out of college to sell chemicals and seeds to farmers,” Bittner said. “They often times will take that seed or chemical job just because of the amount of money they can make doing that.”
Cook knows farming has always been hard and remains so, but in other ways it is easier than it’s ever been, particularly for smaller organic farmers like himself.
“There’s never been a public more conscious about their eating habits,” he said. “For what it is, it’s never been easier. We just need more farmers.”