Feature

Aging on the Farm

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Gene Boyd enjoys waking up on his farm near Albany, Mo., and checking water for his 52 head of beef cattle—mostly Black Angus. In the spring, Boyd examines the soil for moisture content to see if it’s ready for planting corn and soybeans. None of his daily activities are unusual for farmers in this region. 
Except Boyd is 92 years old.

“I’ve always been independent,” Boyd said. “I like to get out and move around, look at the stock and see what’s going on.” When asked for the secret to his longevity, he cites examples of two neighboring farmers who moved to town—both died within a couple of years. “They’d always been active, and then they sat down. You’ve got to stay active.”

The age of America’s farmers continues to rise. Until around 1980, just 17 percent of farmers were age 65 or older, according to Laszlo Kulcsar, a demographer at Kansas State University. By 2007, the figure more than doubled to 37 percent, and will continue to grow as the baby boomers—those born after World War II and before 1964—start hitting age 65 this year.

Boyd’s age may be advanced compared to most farmers, but his drive to remain on the farm is common. “Farmers don’t think about retirement as much as those in other jobs,” said Kulcsar, an associate professor of sociology who leads an extensive study of retiring farmers.

Keeping it in the family

Last summer, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service helped Kulcsar by mailing surveys to 4,000 farmers over age 50 across the state. Some 1,500 surveys were returned—a higher than average return rate for the agency, which regularly gathers data from farmers for USDA.

The vast majority of farmers in Kulcsar’s preliminary results, gathered from 509 farmers aged 60 to 69, are married with children.
Boyd fits that mold, although his wife, Bea, passed away 11 years ago. “I don’t want to live in a nursing home,” Boyd said. “I’ve learned to take care of myself.”

One-third of farmers aged 60 to 69 responding to Kulcsar’s survey said they were in the process of retiring, but almost half don’t see it as urgent. Farmers usually age in place on the farm, partly because they don’t make a clean break from the workplace when they retire, as they would in an office or factory job.

Kulcsar found that most older farmers lack solid plans to keep their farms going in the future. Only 30 percent would seek retirement planning assistance from accounting, financial planning or other experts. Some 62 percent intend to keep the land intact, and most plan to keep it in the family.

But only 57 percent have a successor identified, and 42 percent have estate plans, although 14 percent more say they’re in the process.

“Farmers have a different notion of retirement,” Kulcsar said. “Many don’t have hobbies or anything to substitute for farming. It’s a slow transition. Many go from all-out to just half time. That can be good for a successor. On the other hand, farmers can’t let go.”
Boyd and Bea raised just one son, Gary, making for an easy decision on who will inherit the farm. A few years ago, Boyd turned over most responsibilities to Gary, who drives about an hour to the farm every weekend from his home near Kearney, north of Kansas City. Gary’s son, Steve, helps out with the cattle during busy times. The family plants and sprays crops and cuts hay, but hires custom combiners to harvest corn and beans.

Gary admits surprise at how long his dad has remained on the farm. “But he’s always loved to work,” Gary said. “He’s slowed down, but he runs the tractor and disks in the spring, and he rakes hay.”

Kulcsar speculated that farmers like Boyd continue on in their golden years because today’s equipment makes the work less physically demanding than in the past. Another reason that the average farmer’s age continues to rise is that farm kids are choosing not to farm. Like Gary, most move to the city to find a job. Gary works full time for a large paper carton manufacturer.
The average farm size is growing, and it’s harder to make a living on smaller parcels. Kulcsar’s farmers revealed that just 12 percent of their children are involved in farming—and Kulcsar’s definition was broad enough to include jobs like working at a farm elevator.

{gallery}feb11/age:210:270:1:2{/gallery}It’s a common belief that most farms have been passed down from one generation to the next. Kulcsar was surprised that just 38 percent of the farmers in his preliminary research say they inherited their farm. Boyd lives on a farm that he purchased 50 years ago. Previously, he farmed a few miles farther south. Boyd’s parents farmed, but Boyd bought both his farms on his own, paying for them with “hard work,” he said.

Today, Boyd lives on income from the farm, Social Security, and investments. While the K-State research didn’t ask about rental income, many aging farmers depend on land rent payments. Boyd earned rent from acreage set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program until recently, when the federal contracts expired. The Boyds since planted those acres in crops.
Helping Boyd stay at home

Boyd may be independent, but his daughter-in-law, Ginny, and his grandson’s wife, Becky, help make it possible for him to stay at home. They keep him supplied in plated meals, and Gary delivers them each Saturday to make sure Boyd eats a balanced meal each noon throughout the following week.

“She sends me a lot of stuff I wouldn’t bother with, like carrots,” said Boyd, who describes himself as a meat, potatoes and bread man. “I’m more or less a fry cook. But they say I won’t cook what I need, so I eat what Ginny sends me.”
Boyd usually heats up oatmeal for breakfast, and fries bacon and eggs for supper. He drives to Albany to pick up groceries and other supplies. “I still drive my car and tractor,” he said. “I do whatever I want to do.”
Ginny works at a medical center near Kansas City where Boyd goes for health services. He takes some medications, and both of his knees have been replaced, but otherwise he doesn’t need much care.
Except for that time he had a “mishap” with the tractor.

One afternoon two years ago, Boyd was preparing a tractor with a pull-behind sprayer for Gary to use the following weekend. He thought he’d put the tractor in a gear that would prevent it from moving when he stepped off to replace the cap on the tank. But the tractor started moving. “It knocked me down and ran over me,” Boyd remembers.
Fortunately, the tractor sat near the house. Boyd crawled home and waited for Gary to call, as Gary does every evening on his drive home from work. Unfortunately Gary worked late and didn’t call until about 7 p.m.

“I told him ‘You’d better come and pick me up,’” Boyd said. “‘I’ve had a little accident.’” X-rays revealed a broken elbow, wrist and pelvis.

Boyd returned to the farm within a few weeks. But as it turned out, the tractor also damaged one of his artificial knees. He put up with the pain for a month and a half before replacing the knee again. He chuckles when he remembers the surgeon’s comment after the operation. “He said, ‘I don’t know how you walked in here,’” Boyd recalled.
As Gary said of his dad, “He’s a tough old guy.”

 

What Boyd teaches us?

 

What can Boyd’s story tell us about the future? We’ll see more knee surgeries like his, along with other medical procedures. According to the American Hospital Association, by 2030, the over-65 population will nearly triple, and knee replacements will be performed eight times more than they are today. By the same year, one in three seniors will be obese, and one in four will have diabetes. The caregiver shortage will increase across the nation, but rural citizens will benefit from emerging technologies that make it easier to deliver care in remote areas.

All of this means increasing costs for American taxpayers who fund Medicare—not to mention the added cost of Social Security—as many boomers may live even longer than Boyd. We can only hope that more of us remain active and healthy like him.

If you drive by Boyd’s place along Highway 85, chances are he’ll be watching out his window. “I see a lot of traffic,” he said. “I know most of them.” Once in a while, neighbors stop by to check on him, but Boyd doesn’t visit others much. When he’s not doing chores, he passes the time watching news and detective shows on TV. He doesn’t seem to mind being alone.

“There’s always somebody wanting to give me a dog,” Boyd said. He’s kept pets in the past, but without that responsibility, “If I want, I can go stay with the kids for a week.”

Kulcsar offers one more reason why farmers like Boyd live at home longer than people in other professions. “Farmers seem to value their independence more,” he said. “It could be that farming is already a good lifestyle.”

Boyd presents a living example of how to age at home independently. When his time comes, he plans to be on the farm. “I don’t worry about it,” Boyd said. “If they find me here one day, I was doing what I enjoy.”

 

How to get help

 

Thanks to his family, Gene Boyd doesn’t need much outside assistance. But help is available—even at a time when government budgets are strained and a growing number of seniors need services.

In Missouri, ten Area Agencies on Aging coordinate services for those age 60 and older, including transportation, in-home care and meal delivery. Other states operate similar networks. Most funds come from the federal government as a result of 1973 amendments to the Older Americans Act. Other contributions come from the state, from grant programs and, in some counties, from senior tax appropriations.

When we contacted Becky Flaherty, executive director of the Northwest Area Agency on Aging, she and her 13-member staff were helping seniors make decisions on Medicare drug benefits.

“The more rural you are, the less you need or want,” said Flaherty, who lives in Albany, population 2,000. “We have grown up being self-sufficient. More people raise their own vegetables, butcher their own meat, and if the grocery store closes at 8, they’ll be there by 8. It’s more than a place to live; it’s a lifestyle.”

Rural areas like Albany, with low housing costs, can attract retirees. In fact, Flaherty sees retirees moving back home to take care of their aging parents. Here, folks sometimes scrape by on Social Security payments of $700 a month. For most Missourians, Social Security makes up just one third of all income. Farmers often bring in added earnings from commodity sales or land rent, but they face special challenges. “They’re often cash-poor but asset rich, so they don’t always qualify for programs,” Flaherty said.

Flaherty’s agency covers 18 counties from St. Joseph to the smallest burgs. In rural places, even the oldest don’t give up driving easily. “In many small towns, you may see tractors on the square, driven by farmers or others who have lost or given up their licenses,” she said. “Transportation is a big issue. With some limitations, we’ll pick you up on the farm and take you where you need to go.” Buses carry seniors to the grocery store or library, and volunteers drive you to medical care.
Flaherty, who manages a $5 million annual budget, admits to funding concerns. “There’s not enough dollars,” she said. “As boomers age, that’s a pipe dream, so we’re designing model projects that encourage cities and counties to assess what they already have. My organization then tries to fill in the gaps.”

Many groups offer assistance, but few know all the services available. In Albany, community and church leaders, Extension representatives and others recently formed Visionary Partnership for a Rural Community and put together a resource guide for Gentry County.

The same group organized Albany’s Helping Hands to recruit volunteers to help with things like mowing, weatherizing houses, cleaning gutters and raking leaves. “People in rural communities are willing to help, but sometimes don’t know how,” she adds. “Our goal is to encourage neighbors to take care of each other again.”

For more information, call your local Department of Health and Social Services, or visit dhss.mo.gov/AAA/index.

For crop insurance

Written by James D. Ritchie on .

Should you order the COMBO deal?

When you visit your crop insurance agent this winter, be prepared for a new lesson in lingo. USDA's Risk Management Agency has rolled several crop risk products into one overall policy, nicknamed "Combo" (for Common Crop Insurance Policy Basic Provisions). So, you'll need to learn to speak Combo-ese.

"The Combo role creates one insurance plan that replaces five similar plans, which greatly simplifies the insurance process for agents and promotes better understanding of options available for producers," said William J. Murphy, RMA administrator. "The Combo plan also reduces paperwork, since multiple, similar plans are rolled up into one insurance plan."

With Combo, you make choices within one of three versions of a single basic policy instead of taking out several different policies."Other than the language, though, not much has changed with the actual coverage," said Bryan Human, Gibson Insurance, Tipton, Mo. "Growers will find that the Combo policy offers the same yield and revenue protections as former products."

Premiums stay essentially the same for equivalent levels of risk protection, as does the USDA premium subsidy rate. Most of the premium goes to pay for yield protection.

The Combo package went into effect with the 2010 wheat crop, and there are some changes here. For one, the projected price for revenue protection options is the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) settlement for the month of September, rather than July. (Note: the projected price under Combo—for all crops—is the average CBOT settlement price, which has been the basis for crop revenue insurance for the past 10 years or longer.)

Insurance enrollment for 2011 spring-planted crops runs through March 15, 2011. Art Barnaby, Kansas State University ag economist, checks off the coverage changes and terminology shifts under the Combo plan.

Combo Yield Protection replaces actual production history (APH, alias Multi-Peril coverage). However, Combo still uses historical yields to set guarantees, and needs at least four years of history, up to an average of 10 years. There's one major change: The Combo yield protection contract uses the same price election as revenue protection contracts. Yield protection is the same for all three Combo options.

Combo Price Protection (with harvest price exclusion) replaces Revenue Assurance (RA) with no harvest price option and Income Protection (IP), at the same percentage levels as under the previous policies.

Combo Price Protection replaces Crop Revenue Coverage (CRC) and RA with the harvest price option. This choice uses the historical yield multiplied times either the base price or the harvest price, whichever is higher. Combo makes payments if revenue shortfall drops below the guarantee. However, RMA limits revenue policies to no more than twice the base price, should harvest price increase by more than that amount.

The harvest price endorsement, in effect, turns yield protection into yield replacement coverage. A grower who has forward-priced grain on forward contracts, hedges, put options, etc., will either be assured enough bushels or enough dollars to replace those guaranteed bushels at current market value, and therefore offset his forward-marketing position.

County yield-based group insurance, including GRP and GRIP, will still be available with no changes. The Combo rule does not replace or change these group-risk plans.

If you own an active crop insurance policy (or policies) and do not change or cancel your coverage by March 15, your 2010 coverage will automatically be rolled to a similar Combo product, as detailed above.
So, forget APH, CRC and Multi-Peril; they no longer exist. Combo is the new game in town where crop insurance is concerned.
 

Pocket the latest

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Many farmers have used smartphones for a few years now. The list of applications that benefit farmers continues to grow—especially in the last six months as new Android-based phones became available. Sales of smartphones to farmers are booming, according to Roger Bundridge, general manager of Northwest Missouri Cellular in Maryville, Mo.

"One customer uses his phone to get soil testing results," Bundridge reported. "Another guy who grows potatoes sends moisture-content data to his buyer, Frito-Lay, to see if the time's right for harvesting." Many receive grain and livestock market information via email every couple of hours, and subscribe to weather alert services.

Northwest Missouri Cellular subscribers doubled in the last six years. Today, it serves 12,000 customers in five Missouri counties. So far, 12 percent use smartphones, and the percentage is rising rapidly.

{gallery}Nov10/phone:210:270:1:2{/gallery}"Rural subscribers want the same handsets that folks get in Kansas City and St. Louis," added Ryan Johnson, director of sales and marketing for Chariton Valley Wireless in Macon, Mo. "National ad campaigns by the major wireless carriers and handset providers are driving demand." Smartphone sales are also heating up at this company, which serves 6,000 subscribers in five counties in north central Missouri. Farmers who rely on auto-steer to guide their equipment end up with more free time in the cab, and smartphones allow them to use that time more efficiently, Bundridge said. The same goes for waiting in line at the elevator when delivering grain. "Farmers who take their smartphones with them can check email and Web sites, saving time when they get home."

iPhone, Droid or BlackBerry—what's best?  

Everyone wants the latest handset, but if you live in a rural place, choosing your wireless carrier may be more important than choosing your phone. Some carriers don't cover all rural areas. Your first task is to find out which carrier offers the best coverage where you live and work. More about carriers later. But handsets, along with their operating systems and applications, are propelling the smartphone surge, so we'll start there. Internet-capable phones were available before Apple introduced the iPhone in Jan. 2007, but the iPhone and its applications menu sent interest soaring. For a while it seemed no one could catch up. However, the Nielsen Company reported that in the first six months of 2010, U.S. sales of phones using the Android operating system (OS) jumped to 27 percent of all smartphones, compared to 23 percent for iPhone and 33 percent for BlackBerry. Trend lines for both BlackBerry and iPhone were dipping slightly.

Rural towns too tough to die

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Three small towns navigate economic turmoil

When you fly over Missouri and other Midwestern states, you see a patchwork of green, stitched together by roads leading to small towns. Towns like Slater, Mo., population 2,100, just south of the Missouri River in the heart of the state.  
"Rural communities are the lifeblood of Missouri," said Ron Monnig, a Slater city councilman.

A sign welcomes Slater visitors with the theme, "A great place for growing," a bow to the fields of corn and soybeans surrounding town, but also a promotion of Slater as a good place to nurture families and businesses. Many rural places want to grow, but Monnig feels pretty good that Slater's population remains steady.

{gallery}Oct10/towns:200:260:1:2{/gallery}The town also calls itself the "City of Festivals," drawing in visitors to a blues fest, a model airplane fly-in and Steve McQueen Days, named for the actor who grew up there. Folks in Slater display a can-do attitude. Monnig for example, who's retired and disabled, volunteers to maintain the town website. Locals contributed their own dollars to build a youth center operated by civic groups and churches. Now they're raising money to build a nonprofit health clinic and a biomass plant that would use agricultural waste and paper residue to make fuel for industrial heating systems.

"We're lucky we have strong leadership, with our council, mayor and city administrator all on the same page," Monnig said. "We've built up some reserves over the years-you have to have matching funds to get grants for some of these projects."

Monnig's proud that the city does more with less. The town electric company increased rates for the first time in 15 years three years ago. In recent years, he said, "Every street in the city has been repaired and paved. We replaced pipe from our water processing plant to town, built a new water tower and upgraded our storm and sewer systems."
It's not all rosy in Saline County. A rehab center for the disabled in nearby Marshall recently laid off workers, reduced employee health insurance and cut services.
"Slater's a struggling little city, but they haven't taken it lying down," said Richard Sheets, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League.

I lost a small battle in a big war

Written by Blake Hurst on .

A foxhole view in the debate between organic and conventional agriculture

 
This spring I was in a debate in New York City.  The topic of the debate was: "Is Organic Food Marketing Hype." I was arguing the affirmative. That's the way we debaters talk. 
 
The venue was about two blocks off Broadway. Yes, I've been booed off-Broadway. My debating career closed after opening night. I knew I was in trouble before the debate started, when they led me from the "green room" (that's the way we TV personalities talk) to makeup. I've never worn makeup before. They spray it on with a little applicator. I refused to wipe it off after the debate-I wanted the experience to last as long as it could. Anyway, the two makeup women proceeded to tell me why they purchased organic food. According to my makeup sprayer, it just made her body feel better. One of my opponents, Charles Benbrook, who works for something called the Organic Center,  was in the neighboring chair during this conversation. He seemed pleased. The evening went downhill from there.

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