HANCOCK COUNTY — On an uncommonly bright but brisk day last week in western Hancock County, 27-year-old Evan Schildmier was busy in the family farm’s equipment barn, working among a snake den of hydraulic hoses priming the row-crop planter for spring.
Schildmier has returned to the family’s 1,700-acre farm after seven years in the Marines and a couple of in-town jobs.
He’s currently the only one of Doug Schildmier’s three kids who has decided to make a living planting and harvesting, and the latest national figures from the United States Department of Agriculture’s census show the younger Schildmier is somewhat of an anomaly.
There’s not a lot of young people pouring into the fields on the nation’s farms.
The USDA recently released its preliminary report on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, an in-depth survey conducted every five years that seeks to tally everything from the number of American farms to who’s running them, how long
they’ve been there and how much money they’re generating.
Though a full report with county-level statistics won’t be out until later this spring, the government’s latest farm snapshot, which spans from 2007 to 2012, is a mixed bag that even agriculture economists are straining to decipher.
There are a few solid revelations, nonetheless.
For one thing, farmers throughout the country and in Indiana continue to get older.
In 2012, the average age of the nation’s principal farm operators – those who made their livings in the fields – was up 1.2 years to 58.3 years old, continuing a 30-year trend of steady increase, the report stated.
“We did a little better in Indiana,” said Purdue University agriculture economics professor Chris Hurt.
But not much better.
The report shows the average age of the Hoosier principal farm operator rose 0.8 of a year to 55.8 years old.
In 2007, 49.8 percent of the state’s full-time farmers were 55 and older, Hurt said. In 2012, that demographic jumped to 55.1 percent.
And on the other side of the equation, there was a 14 percent decrease in the number of principal operators below the age of 54, with significant drops in the 35- to 54-year-old bracket. Farmers over the age of 55 increased 6.6 percent, Hurt said.
“I was surprised that we aged that much in Indiana,” said Hurt, who makes his living crunching numbers relating to all things agriculture.
“I think we all thought it was a really good time in Indiana, and we were doing a good job generating a lot of interest in bringing the kids back to the farm,” he said. “But that’s not what this report says.”
One possible reason Indiana fared better than the rest of the country is the strong economic performance of the state’s primary crops – corn and soy beans – over the past several years.
While Hoosier row croppers reaped, in some cases, record prices for their work, livestock states like Oklahoma and Texas were decimated.
Even with good performance, however, “it’s not enough to keep us from aging in agriculture,” Hurt said.
Schildmier says he gets it.
After the Marines, a tour of Iraq and a couple of jobs punching a clock, Schildmier relishes the independence the farm gives him, and he enjoys bringing the technology skills he learned in the service to the family enterprise.
“I felt like I had something to bring to the table,” he said. “I felt like I could step up and lead and do more than just bale hay.”
But his road runs counter to that of many of his contemporaries.
“For my generation, they didn’t want to stay on the farm,” the fifth-generation farmer said. “It was more go to college, get a degree, go to town and get a job.”
Like many other sectors, the farm is competing against the rest of the world for talent.
“Young people have other opportunities today, and the farm has to bid against that,” Hurt said. “But that’s a good thing.”
The competition forces agriculture to keep itself modern and on the cutting edge.
However, the census shows that keeping up can be difficult for the mid-sized farmer.
The financial stress on farms ranging in size from 180 to 499 acres dropped the number of those operations by almost 7 percent, Hurt said.
The report shows Indiana lost 512 farms in that category over the five-year census period, just part of the 2,243 farms lost statewide from 2007.
The mid-sized farm labors against high expenses and input costs that can’t be marginalized by the economies of size and scale enjoyed by larger, industrial operations, Hurt said.
But even on the Schildmier farm, Evan’s father, Doug, said it costs him plenty just to get into the field in spring.
“It costs me half a million dollars just to plant a crop,” Doug said.
In addition to the overall loss in the number of farms, almost 53,000 acres have been taken out of farming in Indiana since 2007, according to the report.
One apparent disconnect in the report’s numbers is the relationship among the state’s dwindling farms, shrinking farmland and aging operators with a staggering five-year increase in market value.
From 2007, the market value of the state’s agricultural products jumped more than 35 percent by 2012, an increase that would ostensibly fuel sector growth.
Though experts aren’t sure what to make of that incongruity, they are fairly certain the boom times of $8-a-bushel corn are gone for the foreseeable future.
Hit even harder as a group was the “mini-farm,” those farms on one to nine acres of land that were most likely owned by city workers seeking a rural lifestyle.
Keep in mind also that a farm is defined by the government as any operation that has the “potential” to generate $1,000 in annual agricultural sales, Hurt said.
That means any 4-H’er with four show calves could qualify, according to the government.
Given the nature of the mini-farm, Hurt believes the general economic downtown beginning in late 2007 and beyond contributed significantly to the disappearance of 3,113 of these operations reflected by the government’s numbers.
There just wasn’t enough money to pay the mortgage, buy groceries and feed the goats.
Roy Ballard, Purdue extension educator for Hancock County, said the losses of the small and medium farm sector should not be minimalized.
“That’s scary,” Ballard said. “I consider those farms as incubators.”
Though it would be imprudent to draw too many conclusions from a preliminary report, especially given the muddled picture painted by some of the statistics, the decreasing numbers of farms and increasing age of those who run them are a bit troubling to those who watch such things.
“We’re beginning to approach a 1 percent loss (in farms) per year, and that’s significant,” Hurt said.