In 1945 the average age of the United States farmer was 39 years old. By 1974 that average had risen to 45 years. In 2007, our average farmer was 58, according to USDA figures.
The trend continues as young people leave the farm to attend college and then pursue other careers — often looking for jobs with less risk, less stress and more financial reward.
It’s not always the child that encourages the break. Farmers often push their children to consider other options before committing to life on the farm and the constant struggles with weather, capricious markets and voracious pests. Many insist that their sons and daughters get a degree before coming back to the home place.
Whitney Bell and her brother Austin White are exceptions to the youthful exodus from Rural America and are anxious to carry on a family tradition that has persisted through several generations near Frederick, Okla.
Whitney earned a degree in animal science from Oklahoma State University in 2010 and is already back on the farm, improving a herd of Angus cattle and building a commercial cattle operation. She also works for Sesaco as a field representative, encouraging farmers to plant sesame as a rotation option in traditional cotton and wheat country.
Austin has just started his junior year at OSU, majoring in agriculture business and taking as many economics and marketing courses as he can, “for my own benefit.” He spent his summer break working on his parents’ — Joe D. and Gayle White’s — peanut, cotton and grain farm.
Austin and Whitney welcome the opportunities and the challenges. Neither is afraid of hard work or long hours.
Whitney could wrangle cattle in the morning, set up a planter in the afternoon and be the prettiest girl at the dance that evening — until she gets bored and decides to shoot wild hogs in the peanut field with her husband Brandon, a deputy sheriff. She takes care of stray kittens and orphaned wild critters, a raccoon being the latest rescue.
Austin worked all summer on the farm, loading out peanut seed in early summer, plowing, planting cotton and then monitoring irrigation systems. He was anxious to get back to college but also misses the early mornings — 6:30 every day — and checking on crops and “keeping the water going.”
Both say tradition has much to do with their desire to return to their roots.
“I didn’t always want to come back and farm,” Austin says. “When I was younger, I thought I would do something else, something in agriculture, but not back on the farm.”
That changed when he went away to college. “I wanted to get back to the production side of agriculture,” he says. “It’s a pretty sight watching crops come up out of the ground. And I want to continue to build on what dad started.”
“Mom and Dad encouraged us to do other things,” Whitney says. “But they just about had to push me out. I’ve always wanted to come back. I hate to see something a family has built for years diminish because the children didn’t want to come back to what grandpa and great-grandpa had built.
Take pride in family tradition
“I take a lot of pride in the family tradition and I’m not about to watch it go away. I’m glad Austin’s coming back, too.”
She says she feels a responsibility to produce something the world needs. “More than anything, we’re feeding the world. I take a lot of pride in our farm producing the peanuts folks eat and cotton for clothing. And I sure do enjoy raising beef.”
They both appreciate a rural lifestyle.
“I enjoyed the small-town environment,” Austin says. He says attending a small high school provided opportunities he might not have had at a large metropolitan school. “I was able to be more well-rounded. I had plenty of opportunities, playing sports, student council and other activities. I wouldn’t trade growing up in a small town for anything.”
Whitney says the day her family moved off the farm into Frederick, when she was in third grade, “was the worst day of my life.” She missed the country and would spend as much time with her grandmother, out on the farm, as she could. “I stayed out there in the summers and when I came home from college.”
They hope to bring new perspectives to the family farm and use the skills they learn in college and work experiences to fill in gaps. Austin says Joe D. admits that marketing has been a weakness and encouraged him to learn as much as he could about it.
Whitney says her father doesn’t particularly like cattle. “He says they run at you and are unpredictable,” she says. “So livestock is my focus. I love it, and not being conceited, but I feel like it’s kind of a gift. Dad and Austin like row crops.”
She says her dad is a good source of information for her job with Sesaco. “He has so much experience. I like to bounce things off him.”
Austin is adding an economics minor to his ag business degree and plans on applying for a Farm and Ranch Management Program at Texas Christian University when he graduates from OSU. “It’s a nine-month program with intensive farm management training,” he says. “It will help a lot with budgeting.”
Whitney says she may consider working on a master’s degree and perhaps teaching some ag courses at a junior college, at some point.
But the farm remains a primary focus. Whitney and Austin may have their personal favorites but both understand the realities of a family farm with one full-time employee.
“You have to work together on a family farm,” Whitney says. “That may mean getting lunches, working the module builder or taking care of irrigation. It’s all hands on deck, and we do what needs to be done.”
They both express admiration for their parents—for giving them opportunities and for not pushing them too hard in one direction or another.
“I really look up to my parents,” Austin says. “They are something special.”
Somewhere along the way, Joe D. and Gayle instilled in their children a work ethic that often seems rare these days. And they offered them the freedom to choose their own paths.
Austin says he’s anxious to get started on this school year and he’s enjoying being back among his friends in Stillwater. “But I miss the farm. I even miss getting up and making sure the pivots are running.”
“I just love what I do,” Whitney says. “I feel like we’re doing a good thing for the world.”