Challenges facing young farmers and farm transition

Riley Skrdlant (left) and Kelly Skrdlant on their farm operation in 2013 (Image by Ray Meints, NET)
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August 2, 2013 - 6:30am

Most young people get into agriculture by becoming a part of the family operation. It’s been this way as long as Nebraskans have been farming and ranching. But there are many challenges. In 2000, Mike Tobias of NET News reported on a father and son who were farming, and facing tough decisions about the future. In this Signature Story, Tobias continues their story and reports on the farm transition landscape.

2000: Getting "Tougher and Tougher all the Time"

In the summer of 2000, Kelly and Riley Skrdlant were both thinking about the future of the Skrdlant family farm, in south central Nebraska near Bladen. Riley was 18, fresh out of high school with a passion for working with cattle and desire to stay in agriculture, a different desire than most of his classmates.

Riley and Kelly Skrdlant laying irrigation pipe, 2000


Riley Skrdlant, 2003


(images by Terry Hatch, NET)

“I think there’s probably one or two of us going back into production ag for sure,” Riley said in 2000, talking about this high school classmates. “Maybe three or four of us at the most. I think most everybody else is leaving the farm and finding something else to do.”

“It’s what I’ve been around my whole life,” Riley added. “I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for any city life. A lot of people tell you if they could sit in an office and make money they would, but I’d rather work from sun up to sun down for it and sweat it out.”

Kelly, Riley’s dad, wanted this to happen, just like he took over the farm from his father. But Kelly had concerns. Running a farm was getting expensive. Fuel, fertilizer and equipment costs were going up.

“I think he’d make a very good farmer,” Kelly said in 2000. “But it’s tougher and tougher all the time for these young guys.”

There was a lot of uncertainty for Riley and the Skrdlant farm.

2013: "Amazing to Have Him Here"

After high school Riley took community college classes and had a series of full-time jobs, all ag related, most fairly close to home. In one way or another he also stayed involved with the farm, gradually starting to make more management decisions, especially involving livestock.The Skrdlant family farm became his full-time job at the beginning of 2013, taking a role he describes as primary operator and secondary manager.

“Dad finally decided he was getting too old to do a lot of it and wanted to slow down just a little bit,” Riley said. “The last couple of years, I’ve been planting a lot for him and a lot of hours at night after I’d worked all day over there. I think he could see I was getting kind of worn down. I think it was time that we did something different.”

“Certainly having him back on the farm, really literally back on the farm, is a big difference,” Kelly said. “We are at times in conflict about management and probably not as much conflict as he thinks, but it’s just amazing to have him here. That’s something that not very many people get to experience even in ag.”

Kelly, in his early 60s, calls this an evolution of the Skrdlant farm. It’s a typical way farms change hands, and the typical way young people enter agriculture.

Beginning Farmers: "It's Really Difficult to Jump Into This"

When I do workshops a lot of times I’ll ask for a show of hands of how many started farming without the help of anyone, and usually its about 5 percent or less who are able to raise their hand,” said Dave Goeller, a farmer who also works with young producers and farm transition as part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s North Central Risk Management Education Center. “Without a parent or a child or a relationship or a grandparent or an uncle or a neighbor or someone to help get going it’s really difficult to jump into this.”

Goeller’s been helping young producers get started for several decades. During that time fewer young people have been entering agriculture. In 1982, 38 percent of principal farm operators had less than 10 years experience. By 2007, that number was down to 26 percent. New statistics won’t be available until next year, but Goeller has a feeling that trend may be changing.

“I’m hopeful that there’s going to be a change,” Goeller said. “I have a hunch that we will see an increase or at least a stabilizing of the younger people coming back in.  I think a lot of it has to do with economics of the whole situation, where especially in the crop side of things profits have really returned to agriculture in a way that they haven’t in the last, you know, 30 or 40 years.  So there’s some really nice profit potentials out there in the cropping side of things that haven’t been there for a long time and whenever that shows up I know that more people are interested in taking a look at it.”

“I think in this area there are probably more younger guys Riley’s age in that 30 to 35 range who are staying in ag,” Kelly Skrdlant added. “Staying with whatever the operation was for their family and they’re moving into that and kind of taking it over. I can think of six or seven of them just off the top of my head in a 30, 35-mile radius.”

With rapidly rising ag land values, access to land is one the big barriers for beginning farmers.

“When I started farming the thing to do was to go out and buy some ground,” Goeller said. “You buy the land and maybe share some machinery for a while and maybe rent a quarter or two of ground to go with that. Today buying the land looks like it’s five, 10, 15 years down the road before they’re able to generate enough capital to come up with that down payment so they can cash flow that land purchase.”

Angie Miller, a lawyer who works with Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, said that’s why it’s important to have programs that help young farmers get farm land.

“Nebraska is the first state to pioneer what’s called the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit, which allows for a beginning farmer to have a three-year lease with an established producer generally,” Miller said. “The established producer gets a three-year tax credit. The beginning farmer gets a three-year lease and a foot in the door.”

Transition: "Need to Figure Out a Way to Talk"

Land isn’t an issue for Riley Skrdlant. The family has about 1800 acres, which is large for a family farm in the United States. Here they grow corn, soybeans and wheat, and run about 150 head of cattle. Now the challenge is the transition. Father gradually stepping back, son stepping up and in. It’s a challenge in any business, and like any business, it doesn’t always work out.

“I think it’s the lack of communication; that really is when we see transitions begin to fail,” Miller said.

Riley Skrdlant, 2013


Kelly Skrdlant, 2013


Skrdlant farm, 2013


(images by Ray Meints, NET)

“Whether you’re family, relation or even if you aren’t family, you need to figure out a way to talk about a lot of things,” Goeller added. “Expectations in the generations tend to be quite a bit different.”

Transitions can be formal or informal. The latter, common in family operations, would probably best describe how the Skrdlants are doing business.

“There’s just a lot of old ways and new ways of thinking kind of coming together that don’t really like to agree a lot of times,” Riley said. “We’re both not the best of communicators. It’s going to be kind of flying by the seat of our pants. It’s probably the most wrong plan you could have in place, but that’s kind of the way we’re going to go with it I think.”

“When you work together in this kind of an operation, I think you’re going to have differences,” Kelly added. “We probably both have a quick trigger, but things never last very long between us. It’s done and over, and then we go on and get the job done. That’s probably not the way you would have someone write it out on a piece of paper for you to do this, but I think it’s going to work for us.”

Like other young farmers, Riley has a lot of reasons to make this work. He has a family, a wife and two young kids. And this is his passion, expressed in the same words he used when we first talked to him 13 years ago.

“There’s no way I could be sitting behind a desk or doing anything else, I don’t think,” Riley said.

Related NET Television and Radio Programs

By some estimates, more than half of the farmland in the U.S. could change hands during the next generation, and thousands of farm families will be forced to decide whether to buy, hold or sell their land. NET News and Harvest Public Media examine changing trends in land ownership and what they mean to farm families and rural communities in two programs airing Friday, Aug. 2, on NET Television and NET Radio. 

First at 7 p.m. CT on NET1 and NET-HD, in "Changing Lands, Changing Hands," NET News visits with landowners who are selling and those who are hanging on to their acres. You can also watch this program, which features a segment on Riley and Kelly Skrdlant, here.

Following at 7:30 p.m. CT on NET1 and NET-HD, agricultural and economic experts will visit in a 30-minute discussion program, "How Can We Save Rural America?" The program will be simulcast on NET Radio. Guests are former Nebraska Lt. Gov. Maxine Moul, Nebraska state director of USDA Rural Development; Brian Depew, assistant executive director of the Center for Rural Affiars; and Caleb Pollard, co-founder of Scratchtown Brewing Company in Ord and former executive director of the Valley County Economic Development Board.



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