The Pulse of Rural America

Exclusive - The Pulse of Rural America Part 2

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
(Progressive Farmer image by Gwen Shepperson)

The health of farming and ranching may turn on a single question: Would you recommend the business to your son or daughter? A strong "yes" emerged from DTN/Progressive Farmer and Zogby Analytics. Across all the age groups surveyed (18-29, 30-49, 50-64 and 65-plus), nearly 60% of those who responded said they would recommend their professions to their daughters and sons.

"Nothing would make me smile more than [to] have my two boys join me here on the farm," says Ryan Bivens, Hodgenville, Kentucky. "I want them to come. There is still so much to be had from being part of agriculture, coming from the farm. You are an entrepreneur."


Men and women are split on this question. Sixty-six percent of men say they'd recommend farming and ranching to their children. A bare majority of women, 50.1%, would recommend the family business to their children. Brenda Frketich, Woodburn, Oregon, is among the majority. "I think they might just do it," she says of her young family. "There is success to be had in agriculture."

DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby this fall conducted an online survey of 1,008 adults in rural counties in the U.S. Additionally, 120 completed surveys from the Progressive Farmer subscriber list were collected. The margin of error for all 1,128 responses is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Twenty-nine percent of the respondents to the DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby poll farm or have members of their families who farm. The majority of respondents are under 54 years old; 80% are white, 11% are Hispanic and 5% are black. Fifty-five percent of respondents are married. Respondents to this poll are evenly split between male and female. Responses came most frequently from the Great Lakes region -- 37% of the total -- from the South (27%) and from the West (22%).


DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby asked farmers if they had a succession plan. The number is surprising. Only 38% said yes, 15% no, 27% "planning in progress" and 14% "no but will soon." Six percent are not even sure. For the age group 65-plus, only 47% have a succession plan. A full third of 65-plus farmers are only now laying out their succession plans, they say.

There is a difference by gender. Forty-four percent of men told DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby that they have a succession plan. For women, the percentage was 33.1%.

Brenda Frketich and her father, Paul Kirsch, set up a deliberate succession plan for the family's nearly 100-year-old, 1,000-acre Oregon operation. The family produces perennial ryegrass seed, hazelnuts, wheat, crimson clover and peas. Hazelnuts are the money crop.

Frketich had gone to college with no real intention to return to the farm. But, by her senior year, she felt the tug of the farm and began to talk to her father about the potential for a third generation to work it. Her father had been the sole manager since 1974.

"He offered me a two-year internship," Brenda told DTN/Progressive Farmer. "I would be an hourly employee, treated just like everyone else, although I would be able to work closely with my dad on all aspects of the farm." She would be with Paul as he wrote budgets and sprayed the crops. Brenda walked fields with Paul and sat down in meetings with processors and seed companies.

"People can change a lot when they are away. He wanted to make sure that I wasn't just coming back because I thought it would be easy and something that I could do until I found a real job," Brenda says, having now farmed a dozen years.

While it has not gained the same amount of attention from the media, COVID-19 has taken its toll on rural America. The social centers where farmers and their families gather -- schools, restaurants, churches, farm supply retail, associations -- have all been heavily affected. The virus has disrupted the normal functions and commerce of farms and ranches. That children are at home instead of school has at times been vexing to smooth management for farm owners and farm employees.


Twenty-six percent of farmers and ranchers said COVID-19 made it more difficult to work because children are not in school or competing in sports. Twenty-seven percent said COVID-19 made it more difficult to find and retain employees.

"Who would have thought that 12 months ago, we would all be wearing masks, shutting down churches and schools?" asks Jeff Wuebker, Versailles, Ohio. COVID-19 has deeply affected his large hog operation. Jeff's wife, Misty, is an ag teacher in the local school district. Classrooms first closed in March. The fall opening was virtual. She manages through days with "lots of 'nos' to deal with," Jeff says.

Wuebker's college-aged son, Jacob, "finished his year in one of our tractors" after his classes were shuttered. Jacob is now farming full time on the family operation -- one result of COVID-19 not too disappointing overall for Wuebker. "He wants to learn [farming], to make decisions. I'm blessed he wants to do it."

Respondents told DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby how the pandemic affected their lives. Fifty-five percent said it impacted their ability to interact with family, friends and neighbors, it negatively affected grain and livestock prices (48%), affected their families (43%) and made it more difficult to obtain parts, services and inputs (41%). One-quarter said the pandemic has even made it more difficult to transport grain and livestock.

Roughly a quarter of surveyed farmers said the COVID-19 outbreak has affected their ability to earn off-farm income (28%). But, off-farm income is important. Sixty-seven percent strongly or somewhat agreed off-farm income is important to their financial well-being. Close to half of surveyed farmers (45%) claim off-farm income.

Wuebker's overriding concern is the economy. Most pork is consumed in places outside the home, such as in restaurants. "Meat production is an industry heavily affected by the pandemic. We need to get through the coronavirus and get the economy back on track," he says.

Marc Arnusch, of Keenesburg, Colorado, says the pandemic has already refocused his business outlook from five to 10 years out to only the next two years. The grain operation, joined by Marc's son, Brent, had been finding new markets for their crops, such as wheat in the growing distillery and craft beer industries of the Centennial State.


"But, now movement in that space is almost zero," Arnusch says. Closed or partially opened bars and restaurants have "shattered their plans." Arnusch is prepared to manage the farm through 2021. Beyond that are questions difficult to answer.

Despite the impact of COVID-19, the business of farming and ranching has been good for more than half of those who responded to the DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby poll. Fifty-seven percent of responding farmers said Donald Trump's focus on agriculture improved their farming and ranching financial outlook.

"We've had some good years," says Darren Grogan, Arlington, Kentucky. "We can survive in this economy. We could thrive if the economy was better."

Fifty-four percent strongly/somewhat agreed that farming and ranching has been a profitable business during the past four years. But, 42% would somewhat/strongly disagree. More rural adults also believe that U.S. agriculture is worse off (39%) than better off (23%) than it was four years ago. The number of farmers with no profits to spend (21%) is similar to the number observed in the 2016 (18%) poll.

There are familiar financial stresses, too. Fifty-three percent of farmers answering the survey said equipment/technology are their biggest strains on budgets. That is followed by fertilizer (43% say it stresses the budget), fuel (41%), pesticides (38%), seed (33%), labor (31%), feed (29%) and transportation (20%).

Farmers (59% of respondents) told DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby that their farm operation would be struggling financially if it were not for the USDA aid programs such as the Market Facilitation Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.


DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby compared this poll and the 2016 study to understand where farmers direct their profits. Paying down debt was the most common answer. Forty-six percent say they use profits to reduce debt -- but that was down 6 percentage points from 2016. Forty-three percent use their profits to upgrade equipment, an 11-point drop from 2016.

Healthy percentages of farmers are upgrading their irrigation and drainage systems (21%, same as in 2016) and purchasing additional acreage (19%, same as in 2016).

Like the rest of the nation, health insurance is a burdensome issue for rural America. DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby asked rural adults and farmers about insurance, specifically the survey asked if farmers and rural adults have adequate outlets to purchase health insurance for an affordable cost. On that question, a slim majority (51%) of farmers and rural adults strongly/somewhat agreed, while 35.6% somewhat/strongly disagreed.

Among farmers and ranchers only, 43% of health insurance is provided by a spouse's off-farm employment.

Angelo Erickson, Tarkio, Missouri, has one word for health insurance costs: "terrible." He offers health insurance to the family of his main employee and pays the full premium. In five years, that monthly bill has nearly doubled to $1,200.


DTN/Progressive Farmer/Zogby tested attitudes toward The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The question put to rural adults and farmers was did they agree the health insurance act has improved their ability to purchase insurance? Thirty-eight percent strongly/somewhat agreed, while 40% somewhat/strongly disagreed.

The poll asked farmers and ranchers about the environment. Fifty-four percent of respondents strongly/somewhat agreed environmental rules and regulations have not negatively impacted their ability to manage their operations. Forty-one percent somewhat/strongly disagreed.

The poll asked if weather patterns had changed on their farms, and if the impact had been negative or positive. Fifty-eight percent strongly/somewhat agreed weather patterns had changed. Thirty-seven percent somewhat/strongly disagreed.

Of those saying there had been changes in weather over their farms, 29% of farmers and ranchers said the changes had been positive; 47% said negative; and 24% were not sure.


Dan Miller