MONTANA — Farmers will tell you we are at an important time in agriculture. A large chunk of farmers are hitting retirement age and fewer young people are getting into the business. Family-owned farms are the backbones of America, and they are crucial to preserve. As more people are aging out of the ag industry, we wanted to find out what America would look like without them. Farmers say the solution requires getting more people interested and without it, we'll all suffer.
Every family-owned farm in America has a history of its land and a plan for the future, especially on the brink of an owner's retirement. As Walt Sales is on the verge of passing his largest family heirloom down to the next generation, he thinks about how different the times are.
"It definitely is a transition because you never dream really that you'll be there. You always hope, but then when it comes, you're like, 'Oh man, now what?" Sales said. "We've changed a lot in what we see as the future and generations down the road, as to when we were first trying to pay the bills and make it work right."
He explains for generations, family farming was a lifestyle that paid for itself. Now, the emphasis on the business side is much greater.
"I was my folks' retirement plan. My kids are my retirement plan. We in the ag industry, and we are getting better, we need to start planning as a business to put some retirement plan away for that next generation so financial burden is not just rested on our kids," Sales said.
Family farms like his are what keep the industry afloat, making up 98% of farms in the U.S. and providing 88% of production. However, as technology revolutionized the industry, fewer families are needed for the operation.
"It used to take four families to run this now one good kid can do a lot with a little bit of hired help," Sales said.
Joel Shumacher is an economist at Montana State University.
"If you'd looked back a couple hundred of years ago, the bulk of America would be directly involved with ag or one step away, but as ag has gotten a lot more efficient and fewer farmers can feed a lot more people, a lot less of the population works in ag," Schumacher said. "Some families are looking, wishing one of their kids would come back, and others where they are trying to figure out a way to find enough income to bring back two or three back to the operation."
John and Samantha Ferrat know that feeling well.
"I see a lot of ranches being sold for an exuberant amount of money," said Samantha Ferrat. "If we're not able to expand to be able to bring our son back to the farm and ranch, that he'll have to have another job as well and that would be really hard on a person to run the ranch and have another income."
This ranch has been in the Ferrat name for more than 100 years.
"Profitability is definitely a main issue amongst agriculture across all sectors especially right now. We have record high input costs across the board, fuel fertilizer everything that we pay for we have to pay retail and we're not seeing an increase on our other end," said John Ferrat.
These effects go beyond the families themselves.
"If we don't have that agriculture providing the tax base your cities kind of dry up," said John Ferrat. "It's agriculture that pays for all of the services that this county has and a lot of rural Montana is that way."
That mirrors much of the country as well. So, what would these farmers like to see? More ag education and higher priority on government levels.
"It is difficult policy-wise, financial-wise, to get funding from some great intended programs down to the family farm," Sales said.
"I guess we're just trying to make our name in the world and secure our future and then make sure we have a future for the next generation as well," John Ferrat said.
They emphasize ranches like theirs are needed in order for the industry to survive.