By Tim Leeds
Farming runs in Trevor Wolery's blood. His great-grandparents homesteaded on the Hi-Line about 1913, with one side of the family homesteading north of Inverness and the other north of Rudyard. His father, state Rep. Merlin Woolery, farms near Rudyard and has two brothers and about six other relatives running farms on the Hi-Line.
Trevor, 28, knows firsthand that the nature of farming has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. "Twenty years ago there was opportunity. There isn't opportunity today," he said.
So Trevor, like other young farmers trying to get started on their own, is taking the risks and working the extra hours that Hi-Line farming now requires. With farm income falling below farm expenses, he and his wife, Karleen, work outside their own farm.
Trevor and his wife rent 212 acres to produce their own grain, and lease about 2,400 acres to run about 120 head of cattle. Trevor said there isn't much land available to start a new farm, mainly because of the Conservation Reserve Program. In CRP, ag producers are paid by the federal government to set aside land for conservation.
Farmers can make more money putting land into CRP than renting it out, selling it or working it in today's ag economy, he said. That ties land up and increases prices for other available land.
That makes it tougher for a young farmer trying to get started.
"Twenty years ago, 40 years ago, they all had to face drought and market prices, but they didn't have to face CRP. Especially all three at once," he said.
There are other obstacles to today's farmer, his father, Merlin Wolery, said. Higher costs are one.
The costs of fuel, farm insurance which a farmer really can't do without and equipment are much higher. Along with low prices for ag products, it's hard to show lenders justification for financing a lease for farmland.
"Thirty years ago you could go to the bank and show a positive cash flow. It's pretty tough to show that today with input costs and market outlooks," Merlin said.
With the drought, Trevor averaged about 3.5 bushels an acre on his harvest this year. Ideally, it should have been 18 to 25 bushels an acre.
"If you can farm 50 years and average that every year, I think you'd be doing OK," he said.
Trevor and Karleen had expenses averaging $50.85 an acre for their spring wheat crop, and a total income of $56.05 an acre, for a profit of about $1,100 this year. That doesn't include expenses like fuel, repairs, maintenance, insurance, licensing and taxes on equipment, or the amount of labor put into raising and harvesting the crop.
As in many farm families, farming isn't Trevor and Karleen's only income.
Trevor worked for the Farm Service Agency for the past couple of years, though he didn't this year, as well as working for Merlin. Karleen teaches at the Joplin-Inverness schools.
The tougher ag economy isn't just hitting new farmers, Trevor said. It's harder even for established farmers to pay the bills in today's market. His dad is also facing harder times.
Operation loans are crucial for most farmers, Trevor said. Only a handfull of Hill County farmers are able to operate on their own money now.
"When Dad and Sterling (Merlin's brother) started out in the '70s they were able to operate on their own money," he said. "Even those guys are feeling the pinch nowadays."
There are options available to help farmers in today's economy and conditions, Trevor noted. High-tech seeds and techniques are available, and Trevor said he should be investigating them more to try to increase his yield.
"What little you can," he said. "It's all financial, what you can afford to get into. Some of it you can't justify financially."
And some of it won't be that much help, he added. Not much can be done in a three-year drought, even with better seed.
"That would be the magic seed," he said. "Nothing works when it's dry."
Other options are financial, such as incorporating. Trevor said the majority of the farms on the Hi-Line seem to be incorporated these days, which provides some advantages for financing and tax purposes.
He said his operation really isn't big enough yet to need incorporation, though if it ever grows large enough he will consider it.
Merlin, whose farm is incorporated, said there probably has been some tax advantages to it. But along with some added expense in keeping books for the corporation, low prices and drought have offset some of the advantages, he said.
Trevor said there is room for some optimism. Markets may be opening for U.S. ag products in places like China and expanded markets in Europe. That can't hurt Hi-Line ag producers, he said.
"I think any time you get exports opened up, it's going to improve," he said.
He plans to farm as long as he thinks there's a chance to make a living at it. Something, exports markets or other changes, might just make the cash flow better.
"You always got to have hope," he said.