Six years ago, Wes Hein realized he and his family would need to leave farming – 15 years before he intended.
He and his wife Lori moved from the Palouse to Spokane in 2007 and settled into city life.
The software business Hein created while still a farmer flourished once he made the move, but he still sometimes misses farm life, especially during harvest, which wheat farmers are in the middle of now.
“I could drive a tractor or combine for 14 hours and not even turn the radio on,” Hein, 56, said. “Solitude was fine for me.”
Hein is part of a larger societal trend. Many baby boomer farmers are leaving their farms years before retirement age. The reasons are varied and differ in degree farmer to farmer, but the primary reason is consolidation. Midsize farmers must grow bigger to survive.
Less than 1 percent of the population now claims farming as an occupation; and about 45 percent of farmers must also work at another occupation to survive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Consolidation means fewer – and bigger – farms now produce the crops once produced by a multitude of farmers working their midsize farms.
“In 2002, 2,100 farms in Eastern Washington accounted for 75 percent of wheat production. In 2007 (latest figures available) 1,600 farms accounted for 75 percent of wheat production,” said Scott Yates, communications director for the Washington Grain Commission.
Yates and others worry about what society is losing as boomer farmers, such as Hein, retire earlier than planned.
“We are going to lose those farm ‘kids’ that grew up with the same talents and abilities as their fathers,” Yates said in a recent interview. “Farmers are really bright people. (Hein) started a software business, for gosh sake.”
Wes Hein grew up on the family’s farm, 30 miles south of Spokane near Waverly. The Heins were wheat growers primarily, but also grew barley, peas, lentils and bluegrass.
“I was the oldest son,” Hein said. “I started driving equipment when I was about 13.”
Though he liked farm life, music was a deeper passion. He earned a music education degree at Whitworth University, and there he met his future wife, Lori, a music minor from San Jose, Calif.
After graduation from Whitworth, Wes took a job teaching music in Cle Elum, Wash. He did this for two years and then rethought his career choice.
“Farmers are mavericks. We don’t like to take orders, don’t like bureaucracy,” he said. “Teaching was stressful, and we weren’t making much money.”
So Hein moved home to the family farm in 1981 and Lori, with two small children by then, moved into a new world.
“At first I thought it was an adventure,” Lori said. “I always loved the country and then, I started learning all that was involved. People get this fairy tale idea of what it’s going to be like, and then you move there and find out how much work it is.
“I had never raised a garden, made jam, baked pies, slaughtered animals. All I saw of meat was in a grocery store all wrapped. It was so much to learn. I was in tears more than once.”
Within a few years, though, Lori was hooked on rural life. She joined a quilting group and later, a monthly tea group with other farm wives. She sang in her church and stayed busy raising three children.
From the end of July to the end of August, for a four-to-five week stretch, Lori cooked homemade meals for the eight to 10 people who worked harvest on the family’s 1,900 acres.
She’d cook early in the morning, deliver the afternoon meal to the fields, then return home to clean and plan the next day’s meal.
Hein took over the farm from his father in 1986, a four-generation tradition in his family. Hein always assumed he would retire from the farm in his mid-to-late 60s, move to Spokane, and perhaps pass the farm on to one of his two sons, the way his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before him.
This was the expected order of things in farm communities, and then in the 1990s, farming underwent dramatic changes. Midsize farmers, squeezed by low prices and high equipment costs, auctioned their equipment and gave up their leases.
And when the economy was in its boom years, the farm economy languished due to complicated economic dynamics. When the stock market is up, for instance, speculation in crops, which can influence crop prices, goes down. Likewise, when stocks crash, speculation in the commodity market can raise prices.
So after several tough years in the early 2000s, due to the farm economy and lease renewal issues on some of the land he farmed, Hein knew it was time to let go.
“You get bigger or you get out,” he said. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, you spent equity to stay in business. Of our close friends – about six of us – I was the last one (to leave). Some quit voluntarily. Some had to quit.
“I was the fourth generation, but it didn’t matter if I was the fourth, fifth – or 10th generation,” Wes said. “If I couldn’t pay my bills, it was time to go.”
In March 2007, the Heins moved into a south side Spokane home with a huge, private backyard, home to 13 popular birdhouses.
They settled in. The adjustments began.
Hein went from working outdoors much of the time to working in a downtown Spokane office. The business he founded while still on the farm, BIAS Software, provides small and midsize towns with accounting, payroll and government compliance software programs.
“I started my software adventures in the mid-’80s,” Wes said. “The farmer’s mentality is you do it yourself or you do without. I didn’t like any of the software I saw, so I wrote my own. That got me started. By the time I quit farming, I was spending half my time on the computer business and half on the farm.”
The Heins liked a lot about city life.
Lori, 55, said: “I thought, yes, life will be easier now! You can work from the second you get up to the second you go to sleep and not get it all done on the farm – ever.”
Lori’s commute to her job at the Quilting Bee store in Spokane Valley was cut in half.
She no longer felt as isolated from her neighbors. They both appreciated taking August vacations for the first time in their marriage. No harvesting for Wes; no harvest meals for Lori.
Their three grown children, now in their early 30s, all live in Spokane, too. The Heins appreciate being short drives away from their kids and their spouses and the three grandchildren.
They don’t miss living or dying by the weather. They don’t miss gravel roads.
“When people complain about the streets in Spokane, I laugh,” Wes said. “You have never driven gravel roads in the springtime during the thaw. We had potholes, washboards. It was brutal on cars.”
The Heins still miss the strong sense of community among fellow farmers. “And sometimes I miss the peace and quiet and being able to take long walks and not see any people,” Lori said.
Wes Hein, like Yates, worries about an entire way of life that may be phasing out as boomer-age farmers leave the profession.
“When I tell people about my childhood – we slaughtered hogs, made our own sausage, smoked our own hams – they look at me like, ‘Are you from the 1800s?’ They’ve never lived through a drought. Never lived through rain ruining a crop. They’ve never chased cows. Chasing cows by foot is a losing proposition, but we did it all the time. Most people go outside when nature is nice. But when you live in it and depend on it, nature’s not as nice.
“As a society, we have lost our tie to agriculture,” Hein said. “Farmers learn how to do everything – and they do it all.”