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Aspiring farmers match up with old hands

Sun., Aug. 16, 2009

RICHLAND, Iowa – He quit his job and drove his wife and their four young daughters across country, a 21st century pioneer lured to these faraway farm fields by the promise of a life-changing deal with an older stranger.

Isaac Phillips always wanted to be a farmer. But when he revealed his plans to some friends and colleagues at the Utah jail where he supervised inmate work crews, they said: a) don’t give up a steady job, b) you’re making a big mistake, and even c) you’re crazy.

Phillips knew the business he was plunging into was risky, that there were no guarantees for him in the Iowa hills. And yet the family moved more than 1,000 miles.

“I thought I may never get a chance like this in my life,” Phillips says, two years into his new rise-with-the-rooster career. “I knew there was no way I could do this on my own.”

How did this thirtysomething Garth Brooks look-alike, who had the drive but not the dollars, get started farming in Iowa?

He had an instant mentor here: John Adam, who planted his boots in this rich black earth as a 19-year-old newlywed and, over the next five decades, helped raise four children, harvested corn and beans, bred sows and collected a wall of plaques and honors – and seed caps.

Now, the two men – the rosy-cheeked apprentice and the silver-haired, windburned teacher – are working together on Adam’s farm. One day, if all goes well, Phillips hopes to call part of this land his own.

This is farm matchmaking, a down payment on the future of rural America.

It’s an increasingly popular idea across the country as a growing number of states try to pump fresh blood into graying fields. Farmers are getting older and working later in life: The average age rose to 57 (from 55) and the ranks of the 75-and-up set increased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2007, according to a recent survey. Meanwhile, the number of those younger than 25 has dropped by nearly a third.

The high cost of getting started is intimidating, even for farming enthusiasts like Phillips.

So what to do?

Pair the two generations in special programs. Aspiring farmers then don’t have to dig themselves into a half-million-dollar hole to launch their careers and can hook up with a farmer in his 50s, 60s or 70s who can plan ahead. Ideally, the older ones won’t have heirs who want to follow in their footsteps.

If their personalities mesh, the two can become partners. Later, the hope is the established farmer will sell, rent or make some other arrangement that keeps the younger one on the land.

There’s a broader goal, too: save the family farm. And a bonus: put more kids in rural schools, pour more money into Main Street, preserve small towns.

No one sees this as the solution for stemming the exodus in rural America. And no one believes that turning over a farm is a let’s-shake-hands-and-close- the-deal proposition. It takes five to 10 years, maybe more. Even then, there often are financial and emotional minefields.

But Dave Baker, the matchmaker who united Phillips and Adam, is a true believer. It’s his job to connect fresh-faced wannabes from all over the country with Iowa farmers preparing for retirement – or merely pondering it.

“You’re not going to take it with you,” he tells the established farmers. “You can’t place the dirt in the coffin. … Who else is going to have it? The highest bidder? How does that affect your community? How does it affect your family name? What do you want your legacy to be?”

Many farmers, families won’t sell

More than 30 years ago, Dave Baker was pining for his own piece of land.

While stationed in the Air Force in Germany, he wrote to a distant relative in Iowa, asking him for a chance to rent some pasture when he returned.

Back home, Baker worked days and farmed nights and weekends, settling in slowly, buying a tractor and some cows one year, a bit more the next. It took 18 years to pay off his loans.

Now, he’s a farm matchmaker at Iowa State University, having worked on more than 30 matches in three years. (A few have fizzled.) It’s much like running a dating service, only land and livelihoods are at stake as Baker sifts through applications, searching for compatible pairs. Are they farrow-to-finish guys? Corn or Christmas tree growers? Do they want to raise chickens or calves?

With Iowa having lost about a quarter of its farms in the last three decades, it’s no surprise this idea has taken root here – though several other states have taken similar steps.

In Oregon, a program started in the spring reaches out to aspiring farmers and those leaving agriculture, looking for possible partners. In Virginia, an online database tries to hook up the two generations. In Nebraska, there’s a match program and tax breaks for farmers who rent to beginners.

And in Washington state, a nonprofit group has 300 people eager to start (mostly organic) farming, and 65 landowners looking to give someone a try.

“There’s a lot of interest in helping young people get started,” says John Baker, head of the Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State. “It’s just natural that you create some kind of clearinghouse so people can figure out how to do it.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Money and tradition can be powerful obstacles.

There are folks whose nest egg is their land and heirs who won’t farm, but won’t sell, either. And there are old-timers who, even with gnarled hands and arthritic legs, cling to a job that’s their identity and part of their bloodline for generations.

“It’s your mooring in life,” says Paul Lasley, an Iowa State sociologist who, along with five brothers and sisters, long ago chose careers off the family’s Missouri farm. “The land represents more than a business. It’s your home, it’s where you were raised, where you learned the values of watching your parents work, sweating in the summer, shivering in the winter … where you learned the lessons of life.”

“For some people, it’s very difficult to sell,” he adds. “It’s almost like selling part of themselves.”

Crisis in ’80s hurt

John Adam’s original plan was to build a big family farm.

His four children would be there, then the grandkids, three generations spread over 1,000 acres, breeding sows, harvesting corn, growing beans, working as a team during the day, sharing meals some nights.

He started small with his wife, Colleen – 10 cows, 20 sows provided by his father, also a farmer – and grew big (1,800 hogs). One day, he expected he’d pass the torch.

“That’s kind of the hope and dream of every farmer,” he says.

Then the farm crisis of the 1980s hit. Interest rates soared, land values plummeted, lives were destroyed. “The ’80s took the fun out of farming for everyone,” Adam says. “It ruined an awful lot of families.”

He survived, but when his two daughters and two sons “saw their mother and I struggling to pay the bills,” he says, they attended college and found good jobs. He wasn’t about to argue with their success.

But decades of heavy labor take their toll. Adam, who had a hip replaced twice, says he isn’t as agile or fast as he once was – something that’s apparent when he’s handling 500-pound sows.

“I’m 64,” he says. “I’m not capable of doing what I did when I was 34. It was time to get young blood in, not just for the physical side, but for the business side of it.”

His son-in-law works on the farm but didn’t want to be the in-charge guy, Adam says, so he applied to Baker’s program. He interviewed two couples, but was sold immediately on Isaac and Katie Phillips.

Adam says his own kids “all gave their blessing” to the idea. And he has come to see the Utah couple as extended members of his clan.

“My theory has always been you really don’t have to be a blood relative to be considered family,” he says. “Family is someone who makes life more pleasant, and Isaac does that.”

Beginners have jitters

In a way, Isaac Phillips won a lottery.

Only a few dozen Iowa farmers are looking for partners. Nearly 350 suitors are itching for a shot. Most are from Iowa, ranging from 18 to their 30s; others come from Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma and several other states, even New York and California.

Phillips, the great-grandson of a sheep rancher in Utah, is no stranger to farming: He had done it in Utah, raised horses and bred hogs on the side. But it wasn’t enough to support a growing family.

As a sheriff’s deputy, Phillips had security, but not job satisfaction. He and Katie had long talks about trying to farm. But when they applied to the matchmaking program, he says, he thought the odds were too long to be chosen.

So when Adam phoned one night two years ago, Phillips was thrilled.

The two men met and though Phillips says he and his wife were hesitant to move to Iowa without a contract, they talked some more and decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. “I couldn’t hang this whole thing on a little piece of paper,” he says.

In Iowa, the Adams welcomed Isaac and Katie with a farm tour, showed them the Mormon church the Utah couple had already chosen and drove them to the school their girls would attend. Adam, who had been a school board member for more than 40 years, introduced them to the teachers, too.

He wanted to make sure Katie Phillips was comfortable. “If the wife ain’t happy, nobody’s happy,” explains Adam, who also remodeled a four-bedroom farm house for the young family.

For Isaac, there were some beginner’s jitters.

“I thought, ‘Am I smart enough? There are so many people who don’t make it,’ ” he says. “ ‘How can I guarantee I’ll have something for my family?’ ”

There was pressure, too, knowing his decisions would affect the Adams and workers on the farm. That’s where having a 45-year veteran made a difference.

“John really took me under his wing,” Phillips says. “If I tried to buy a farm out there and work it by myself, I would have been a nervous wreck, I really would. … He’s not looking over my shoulder all the time. He gives me a little bit of freedom.”

Adam, in turn, is impressed with Phillips. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say he couldn’t do something,” he says. “He’s always willing to try.”

Still, the two men have different styles. Phillips likes to plan ahead, writing things down; Adam, he says, thinks things out in his head. “I come to him with all these ideas,” Phillips says. “He says, ‘Just relax, settle down.’ ”

There have been a few “ruffled feathers,” Phillips says, but they’ve bonded, too. His daughters – he now has five, 10 months to 12 years – affectionately call Adam “Grandpa John Deere.” On occasion, the families have supper together.

The girls quickly adapted to rural life; they help their dad feed the sows, then rush in to give mom “stinky hugs and kisses.”

“We came out here thinking this isn’t going to be temporary – it was forever,” says Katie Phillips. “We’re in this for the long haul.”

As much as they’ve settled in, the two men still have no written contract.

“I’m still trying to find my place,” Phillips says. “I feel a lot more comfortable with where I am and what I’m expected to do,” but, he adds: “Am I here as employee? … Are people expected to look to me for answers? There still is a lot to figure out.”

Phillips would like to own part of this farm one day and expand. As he looks far ahead, he even wonders if his daughters will share his love of farming and follow him. If so, great.

If not, he has another idea: Mentoring someone himself one day.

“There’s nothing better than seeing a dream come true,” he says. “I would love to turn around and do this for somebody else.”

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