The old question of “How do you keep 'em down on the farm?” is becoming more difficult to answer with each passing year, as the challenges become greater of making a living solely from the land. Many farmers hope to pass their profession on to the next generation, while others would prefer that their offspring find a different, less arduous way of making a living.

For those who wish to stay “down on the farm,” the choice can come down to the good life or a good living, says Bill Hardy, associate dean of the College of Agriculture at Auburn University. For the vast majority of young people — when they examine the economic realities — the desire to make a decent living wins out. They forego farming and opt for more financially rewarding, non-farm careers, says Hardy.

USDA statistics show that in 2000, a mere 4 percent, or just $2,598, of the average farm family's household income came from farming.

“Even with a very strong love for the agrarian way of life, it would be difficult for an ambitious and intelligent young man or woman today to be satisfied with the difference in earnings potential that off-farm jobs provide,” says Hardy.

That inability to earn a living on the farm is why only 5 percent of Auburn University's College of Agriculture graduates — that's less than 0.2 percent of AU's graduates overall — choose a career in production agriculture. It's also why the average age of Alabama farmers today is 55.

For most young people who desire to farm, says Hardy, it comes down to weighing the benefits of farm life against realistic economic goals. Does the easy-going lifestyle, the independence of working for one's self, the opportunity to be outdoors and watch things grow, and the wholesome environment in which to raise children outweigh financial security and stability and providing a comfortable lifestyle?

“Those latter goals and desires conflict with the goals and desires that would keep us on the farm,” he says. “When we look at these conflicts, we begin to understand the importance of some of those basic principles we learned in economics and finance. Basically, it comes down to this: if we want to have things, income is a necessity, and that income can't always be found on the farm.”

The only way, says Hardy, for young farm folks to insure a reasonable household income is if one or both spouses have off-farm jobs. That presents a problem in many rural areas, though, because when there is little or no industry and there are no major cities nearby, employment prospects are few. This sets in motion what Hardy calls the “out-migration cycle” that plagues rural Alabama and rural America today.

“The initial loss and lack of jobs in the farm economy starts the first wave of loss of population, especially of productive young people,” Hardy says. “And as those folks move out, the population in these areas gets older, the death rate begins to exceed the birth rate and the local population declines even more.”

Subsequently, as the tax base shrinks, key government, business, social and religious functions soon are no longer viable, and all public and private investment in the area eventually dries up, which leads to further loss of jobs and continued out-migration.

“Once out-migration from an area begins, the cycle usually will continue until that area completely dies,” Hardy said.

A massive out-migration in the nation's heartland has prompted Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to sponsor the New Homestead Economic Opportunity Act (S1860), a bill which would create government incentives to entice highly productive individuals as well as businesses to return to the rural, out-migration areas and stop the cycle.

“Then you'd have more jobs off the farm available, and that's what it takes today to stay on the farm: somebody working off the farm,” Hardy says.

Shrinking farm numbers in recent decades has robbed the majority of young people of the experience of growing up on a farm, and that means several long-standing ag education programs are more crucial than ever in maintaining an understanding of and an interest in agriculture, says the associate dean.

“It is absolutely necessary that emphasis be increased on FFA, 4-H, Ag in the Classroom and Farm-City Week programs so that more of our population can understand the agricultural industry and the problems the production sector faces today,” Hardy says. “The public must understand how relative this is to them — that if current trends continue, they may not be able to continue enjoying the relatively inexpensive and abundant food and fiber supply they have today.”