Farming is less a job than it is a way of life for the Kansas farmers who watch their peers retire from office and factory jobs without intentions of quitting themselves. They also often don't have plans for the farms after they're gone.
That's what a Kansas State University sociologist has found in a study of farmers in Rush County. Although such a work ethic and commitment may be admirable, it leaves the future of family farming and the culture surrounding it up in the air, said Laszlo Kulcsar, a K-State associate professor of sociology and director of the university's Kansas Population Center.
"Farming is really an essential component of the local culture, and many farmers think that local culture simply cannot exist without farming," he said. "At the same time, farming is a core element only as long as it's a family farm or a medium-sized operation. Once the big companies take over, the economic activity remains the same but the culture is going to change."
Kulcsar's study of aging Kansas farmers began by examining 2007 U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing that more than one-third of U.S farmers -- about 550,000 of them -- are 65 years old or older. Kulcsar and two graduate students wanted to see how Kansas farmers fit in. They made Rush County their model because of the greater significance of farming on the local economy compared with other Kansas counties, and Rush County's large number of older farmers. Kulcsar said that 30 percent of the county's farmers are 70 or older.
Beyond extended life expectancies, Kulcsar said that several cultural and technological shifts explain why there are so many older farmers in Rush County, as well as elsewhere in Kansas and the country. Thanks to more sophisticated equipment, farm labor is less demanding than it once was. In addition, some farmers are not farmers in the traditional sense but rather retirees who took up farming activities as a pastime.
Another significant cultural change, Kulcsar said, has been in family structure. Many farmers inherited their farms from their parents but now find that their own children are not interested in farming.
The second part of Kulcsar's research involved asking these farmers about their strategies for transitioning their farms if they ever do retire or after death.
"They don't even think about retirement whatsoever," he said. "Their take on farming is one that you'd expect. It's a way of life. It's not just making money, it's a culturally important thing."
Kulcsar said that from a demographic standpoint, the problem that arises from increased corporate farming is long-term sustainability, for which family farming is better suited.
"It is expensive and difficult to enter the profession as a farmer who didn't inherit a family farm," Kulcsar said. "The land is expensive, the equipment is expensive, and for that reason there really is no other way to enter the family farming business."
He said this poses another problem in that farmers just entering the profession are more likely to adopt technology and innovations that could improve profit margins and help them compete with the economies of scale that corporations have.
"Family farming creates certain values and a work ethic that corporate farming just can't have," Kulcsar said. "The farmers we talked to said that their advantage over corporate farming is that they're going to do the right thing and care about people."
Kulcsar presented the research in August at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society in Madison, Wis. The students participating in the research are Benjamin Bolender and Albert Iaroi, both K-State doctoral students in sociology. The project is funded by K-State's Center on Aging.
Kulcsar said that the future of the research could involve extending the study to other farming-dependent counties in Kansas, as well as working with the Center on Aging and with K-State Research and Extension on ways of getting farmers involved in transition plans for their farms.