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Tough spring took a toll, but mid-Michigan generational farmer hopeful

Tim Stuart farms more than 750 acres near Lake Odessa, including this soybean field. (Photo by Hunter Dood)

Hunter Dood

Staff Writer

Tim Stuart is a 36-year-old farmer who manages approximately 750 acres that he shares with his dad.

Stuart lives with his wife and two children in their home off  M-66 in Ionia County, with a soybean field in their back yard. His family farms soybeans, wheat, hay, corn, sweet corn, oats and maple syrup.

Farming has been an essential part of his life for as long as Stuart can remember, but he really started taking it seriously around the age of 15.

Stuart isn’t a first-generation farmer. He said he is at least a “fourth-generation farmer and my kids will be fifth-generation farmers.”

Stuart's grandfather, who is still farming at the age of 94, moved to the Ionia County area from Clarksville in 1969, where he established the family farm that is still in operation.

“My family has been farming just about as far back as the history books go,” Stuart said, adding that his kids will be the eighth generation to farm maple syrup.

His 5-year-old son, Noah, and 7-year-old daughter, Hannah, help him out around he farm.

“They’re getting in the groove, I’m raising them up right,” he said with a chuckle.

Stuart's hope is that his kids will follow in his footsteps, like he did with his father. He said he hopes they see the value in what the family is doing and that they continue it.

But he's worried about it.

The agriculture industry is experiencing a growing age imbalance and barriers to entry for young farmers – and these issues are getting attention from industry experts and U.S. lawmakers. A House panel recently started hearings to address some of the problems faced by new farmers.

Limited land availability and the high cost of land, equipment and other products are challenging, especially for those farmers who are just getting into the business. Those costs can be overwhelming, Stuart said.

A large percentage of farmers are age 60 or older, he said.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistic Service, the average age of primary producers is 59.4. Compared to the 2012 census, that age has increased by more than a year.

The median age for farmers is the highest median age of any major occupation tracked by the government's Current Population Survey for which data was available, according to The Associated Press. The median age for farmers has gone up by half a year since 2012, despite the median age of the entire labor force falling slightly over that same period.

Although the census showed that the number of primary producers under the age of 35 increased by 2,000, the number of primary producers over the age of 65 outnumbers those under the age of 35 by more than six to one.

Stuart said another reason the industry has seen an increasing age gap is because farmers are sending their kids to college.

“College is great, but they send their kids to college and wonder why, after four years, they don't want to come back when (the kids) can see they can make $90,000 a year doing just about anything that involves a skill,” Stuart said. “Why am I going to go struggle with dad on the farm?”

Stuart attended Grand Rapids Community College and earned an associate’s degree in automotive technology, but he returned to the farm with his father.

He spoke of the struggles that farmers face -- and this year has been no exception.

“This spring was probably the most stressful that I have ever recalled,” Stuart said. “We've never seen this before as far as not getting things planted.”

He knows 80-year-old farmers who said they’ve never experienced a spring like this year. 

Stuart said he believes the repercussions will be seen this fall and winter, but no one will know the extent of it “until we get to that stage.”

After this rough spring, summer has brought hope to the agriculture industry. Stuart said the heat has helped his farm out; they're seeing good progress on crops that were planted late.

“There is a little more optimism now with the crops that are in, but we have that cloud of unplanted acres hanging over our head,” he noted, adding that his family was unable to plant on approximately 85 acres. “We were pretty fortunate to get in what we did.”

Stuart said the hay cut was great and has been very successful this year. He added that wheat also will be successful, especially in view of the tough situation they faced this spring.

The farming industry needs workers and Stuart said young farmers can still get into the profession.

“I would try to find someone who is looking to retire and begin to work with them, even if they aren’t family,” he advised.  “Maybe work something out with them and eventually work with them.”

Stuart said aspiring farmers should look for a mentor to learn the ropes. 

Many people enjoy farming because they get to be their own boss but, for Stuart, he enjoys seeing his kids learn the skills.

“We leave a legacy with the land and you get something to remember the former generations by.”

Stuart also noted the financial ups and downs of the market due to trade issues and lower commodity prices, although the U.S. and state governments have been helping the agriculture industry.

“I’m glad we have an administration that desires to help us out.”

Above all, Stuart said, farmers need public support “more than ever.”

The rough spring hit farmers hard and he said he has noticed signs of depression among other farmers.

“We just need encouragement right now.”

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