Face of Farming Changes in Michigan

 
Face of Farming Changes in Michigan

The black-and-white photograph shows a small boy riding a small tractor.

Fifty years later, Art Horn of Clyde Township, Mich., is still riding farm equipment — but instead of an old McCormick-Deering he can sit on, Horn has to climb up into the cab of a 15-foot-tall John Deere combine worth more than $70,000.

Horn, who is 61, farms the same 80 acres his father, grandfather and great-grandfather worked. He said they'd be glad to see he's continuing the family tradition — but they'd be shocked at how it's changed.

"They would be amazed at the changes if they could see them," Horn said. "They had 40 horsepower; my tractor has 220 horses."

Agriculture's mechanization is reflected in the numbers: In Michigan's St. Clair and Sanilac counties, the size of farms has grown, while the number of farmers has decreased.

Farmers are getting older, and more farmers are raising crops only and eschewing livestock, the (Port Huron) Times Herald reported.

Phil Katz, area field crops specialist for Michigan State University Extension in St. Clair, Sanilac, Macomb and Oakland counties, said the trends aren't just local.

"Everywhere you have older farmers who are continuing on, and they aren't being replaced by the next generation," Katz said. "That's part of the reason you're seeing less farms, bigger farms and less livestock."

Travis Fahley is an exception. His great-grandfather started farming near Emmett in 1948. Fahley, 37, still takes the corn and soybeans he raises to the same grain elevator.

Like many of his generation, he left the farm. Unlike many, he came back to work with his father, Ed Fahley.

"I grew up here and, like anybody else in small-town America, I left," Travis Fahley said. "Later, I came back and found out life on a farm isn't so bad."

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Jeremy Nagle, a spokesman for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said agriculture in St. Clair County is somewhere between the large producers in Sanilac County who grow crops such as corn, winter wheat, soybeans and sugar beets, and truck farmers closer to Detroit who grow fruits and vegetables.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, however, shows the trend in both counties is toward bigger farms and fewer farmers.

In 1978, for example, there were 23 farms in the two counties larger than 1,000 acres. The most recent figures show 142 farms larger than 1,000 acres.

In 1997, farms in Sanilac County averaged 271 acres; in 2012, farms averaged 311 acres, a 15 percent increase.

Farms in St. Clair County averaged 145 acres in 2002 and 172 acres in 2012, an 18.5 percent increase in 10 years.

Nagle, however, said the perception family farms are being pushed to the side by corporate farms isn't true.

"The vast majority of farms in Michigan are still family owned and family run," Nagle said. "Just because they're big, doesn't mean they're not family."

Horn, who works 80 acres, said farmers have fewer kids — and not many of those want to stay on the farm.

"The bigger farms are the ones where the kids are interested in continuing," Horn said.

He said people who want to farm should study agriculture at colleges, such as Michigan State University, and come back with fresh ideas about how to maximize output and profitability.

"It is a business," Horn said. "You either go big, or you claim yourself as a hobby farmer and putz around the farm.

"It used to be you could provide for a family with a small herd of dairy cows. That's not the case anymore."

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Horn said his grandfather and father raised milk cows as well as crops. He works 80 acres of soybean, corn and wheat, and raises a few chickens that lay eggs he gives to friends and family.

He used to have about 40 head of Dexter cattle — small cattle used for beef and milk production — but he's down to two cows and one bull.

"For a while there, I thought I was going to make a good living at it and retire early," Horn said. "But (the beef) is mainly for family now."

Horn stores his combine and tractors in the old dairy barn where he milked cows when he was younger.

The switch from livestock to crops is one of the emerging trends in farming. In 1978, livestock accounted for sales of $62.3 million compared to $39.7 million for crops.

In 2012, crop sales were $377.9 million compared to $151 million for livestock.

Katz said raising livestock can be more labor intensive than raising crops and, with the average age of farmers increasing from 50.5 in 1982 to 58.3 in 2012, there are fewer people capable of doing the more physical aspects of the job.

"You have to take care of the herd, feed them in the morning and check on them," Katz said. "With dairy cows, you have to milk 365 days a year — there are no vacations."

Katz said the No. 1 cost for livestock farms is feeding the animals, which had increased for several years.

Soybean and corn prices fell in 2014, however, which could drop feed costs. In fact, Ed and Travis Fahley will be expanding from 75 to 125 cattle in the coming months.

Raising livestock is time consuming and labor intensive, however — in the winter, Ed's stepson, Josh Bauer, has to be up in time to feed the cattle at 7:30 a.m.

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In 1978, there were 1,871 farmers in St. Clair and Sanilac counties who listed agriculture as their primary occupation, compared to 1,414 who made most of their money somewhere else. In 2012, there were fewer farmers in either category — but the gap had closed to 1,403 primary farmers and 1,313 part-timers.

The change is more pronounced in Sanilac County. In 2002, there were 1,063 farmers in Sanilac, or 66 percent of the total, who listed agriculture as their primary occupation compared to 532 part-timers. In 2012, there were 868 primary farmers — 56 percent — and 667 part-timers.

Unlike his father, who made his living with a herd of a couple of dozen dairy cows, Horn worked at DTE Energy while farming. He retired in August and said he was excited to be able to concentrate on the farm.

"I used to have two full-time jobs, and now I have just one," Horn said.

Michael Butler is a new farmer who takes the part-time approach. He started farming near Emmett in 2012 while he kept his day job at the Michigan Department of Transportation. He grows soybeans and corn, and farms on weekends and during the afternoon.

He said he got started with the goal to be a full-time farmer, but it's a dream he hasn't been able to reach.

"It's hard to get started on your own," Butler said. "You have to work off the farm right now — things have changed."

Ed Fahley said he understands why many farmers have second careers. He said he was one of the few people who didn't decide to get a more lucrative job at one of the Detroit automakers back in the 1970s and '80s.

"Only a handful of farmers around here are full-time," Fahley said. "I stayed, in part because I wanted to have my family and kids near me."

He wonders what would have happened if he had worked two jobs.

"I'd probably be retired by now," he said.

Katz has his own theory about why more farmers are part-timers or have second incomes.

"Health care costs have continued to rise," Katz said. "People on the farm were looking for places where they or their spouse could get coverage."

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The picture of the old guy in overalls holding a pitch fork is changing in other ways — farmers are becoming more diverse.

In 1978, there were six farms operated by Hispanics in St. Clair and Sanilac counties; in 2012 there were 39.

"When you look at the Hispanic percentage, it still is a small percentage, but it's growing," Katz said.

According to the 2012 Agricultural Census, Sanilac County had 26 farms owned by Hispanic farmers working 7,982 acres of land.

In Michigan, 989 of 52,194 farms had operators who were Hispanic.

The trend is recent: According to the census, 42 percent of Hispanic farmers have worked their present land for fewer than 10 years. That compares with 22 percent of white farmers who have worked their present land for fewer than 10 years.

Nagle said the farm bureau doesn't track its members' ethnicity, and Katz said in his work at the MSU Extensions he hasn't been in contact with any Hispanic farmers in the area.

"If someone wants to contact us, we try to help, but we don't talk to all the farmers in the area," Katz said.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 220 farmers died in a job-related accident in 2013, making it the eighth most dangerous profession in the country. There were 21.8 deaths per 100,000 workers in that year.

Horn said there are some situations that are inherently dangerous that farmers can't avoid. One of his neighbors, David Naplin, died in a tractor-automobile accident near Horn's house in 2004.

"He was just about to make the turn and some kid was leaning down to change the radio or something," Horn said. "The person didn't see him."

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Ed Fahley said he has more than $1 million worth of equipment at his farm. He said his sons know how to use some of the machines better than he does.

While Travis Fahley talked about how exciting it is to use global positioning system technology to pinpoint the exact areas to plant seeds and apply fertilizers and pesticides, his father said that's something he leaves to his boys.

"It would take me more time to turn the GPS on than it takes me do a field," Ed Fahley said.

He said he remembered when crop farming was harder work and laughed about the effort his son and stepson have to put into harvesting hay.

"They won't even touch it," Fahley said. "When I started, you had to get down out of the cab every little while."

Horn said using GPS helps him work his fields with more precision.

"When I was growing up, you had to aim for a tree over there," Horn said. "Now you have a system that can pretty much drive itself."

Some things about farming haven't changed, however. Both Fahley and Horn spread manure on the fields for fertilizer, and Horn still rotates his three crops — soybeans, corn and wheat — the same way George Washington farmed at Mount Vernon.

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Ed Fahley said he's not sure how long he would have continued farming if not for his boys' interest in the family business.

"This is the biggest motivation, is that the boys want to continue," Ed Fahley said.

Horn plans to continue farming as long as he can.

"I'm the last one, there's no one to take over after me when I'm gone," Horn said. 'My grandson comes down to help me in the summer, but I don't think he's interested in it for an occupation.

"Still, farming is in my blood," he said.

With the popularity of farmers markets and organic foods, he wonders if more young people will be tempted to leave the city and try their hand at farming.

"I can see people buying 10 acres and getting into it," he said. "Where it will go from there, I don't know."

Ed Fahley said anyone going into farming should consider a few things before making the leap.

"A lot of people have the misconception they'll get rich," he said. "Did I get rich? No, but I got a roof over my head, my kids are here and I have my health."

Horn said he has always enjoyed working on the farm.

"I was raised on a farm, but nothing compares to being out in the fresh air, working the field and being my own boss," Horn said.

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