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Cost Still a Barrier to Farming as Livelihood

Farmers are hurting in Greenville, Mississippi. The land is flat in the heart of the Delta-farm country. Every other warehouse or business along the main road running into Greenville seems worn down, in need of paint.

Marc Curtis, a local farmer, raises 2,300 acres of soybeans, corn, and rice. He's harvesting his 30th crop with just three employees. Marc shows us what a soybean looks like out in the field.

A soybean field in the Mississippi Delta. Click to enlarge.

Photo: Stephanie Curtis
"That's a soybean pod," he says. "The actual bean ... is just like a pea or something like that ... Right now with prices the way they are, I can't plant a crop and get enough income off of growing the crop to produce it .... The profit is all in the government support."

A second-generation farmer, Marc's father owned a small farm in northeastern Arkansas, and in the late 1950s he moved to Greenville for a larger spread. Marc worked on the farm as a youngster. Farming was a lot harder back then, especially in the heat of the Deep South.

"When I was a kid, we used to have flame cultivators," he tells us. "That was one of the first non-hand weed controllers we had. What it was was a propane jet ... that focused on the base of the cotton."

The flames would kill the weeds without damaging the cotton.

"I used to tie a thermometer on the tractor ... the thermometer measured to 120 and it would be at the top."

Tractor cabs are now air-conditioned. Still, it's hardly surprising that Marc went off and got a degree in aerospace engineering. But newly married after graduating, he joined his father on the farm. His father retired in the late '80s, and Marc has been on his own since then.

Looking out over acres of soybeans, he says he expects a good bean crop this year—a welcome relief from the drought of the past three years.

Even so, he tells us, "It used to be fun. It's not fun anymore."

Marc and his wife Cheryl live on the outskirts of Greenville in a one-story brick house with a pool in the back and a well-tended garden. The Curtis' are representative of the modern-day farm couple. While Marc works the fields, Cheryl has her own career teaching at a nearby private school. Nationwide, more than half of all farm households report that at least one adult family member works off the farm for income and benefits.
Marc Curtis' farm headquarters. Click to enlarge.

Photo: Stephanie Curtis

Marc and Cheryl are typical for another reason: Their two children aren't going into farming.

"Our son was interested in computers, and that's what he does" Marc says. "He had no desire whatsoever to farm. He helped his daddy for a while when he was in school, but he says no way would he do that for a living!"

And their daughter?

"She tried it one year. She worked for one of the seed companies or experimental plants or something, and she was out in the field picking things off ... about a month of that and she said 'no way—I want to be inside where it's cool.' "

She now lives in Atlanta, working at a wireless company.

Marc's kids are far from alone in their choice. Farming, an economic gamble with increasingly poor odds, isn't attracting a lot of young people. For example, the return on farming has run some two to three percent since the 1960s compared to a 14 percent return in the stock Marcet. The average age of farmers is now 54 years old. At 51, Marc's reached that stage in life when thoughts about retirement are never far off.

"I've tried to find a young person who wants to do pretty much the same thing I did with my father—" says Marc, "come in as a partner and build some equity in the operation, and learn how this farm operates successfully, and be in a position where, when I get ready to retire, I could help him buy it—but I haven't been able to find that person."

The biggest barrier to entry is cost.

"It takes a lot of money to get into farming," he says. "In fact, you pretty much can't get into farming unless somebody gives you a road to it. There's too much initial capital investment to do it—for a young person to do it. ... You're talking about a capital investment in machinery and all he needs to do ... couple of hundred thousand dollars at the minimum."

Bruce Davis, sales manager for Farm Tractor Company. Click to enlarge.

Photo: Stephanie Curtis
Bruce Davis is sales manager for Farm Tractor Company, a John Deere dealership alongside highway 82 near Greenville.

"This is a '95," he says, looking over a big machine used for picking cotton, "and that picker right now would sell for between $75,000 and $95,000 depending on how much work is done to the heads. ... You can spend between $10,000 and $25,000 a year on the head. The spindles are $275 apiece, and these are pretty worn."

Bruce Davis says the main reason why farms keep getting bigger, and the machinery larger, is the perennial push for ever-greater efficiencies.

"I think your days of the 1,500-acre farmer are gone," he says. "You're going to see five- to six-thousand acres as a rule down here. I've seen eight, nine, ten thousand acres. I think that's the way it will go, I even think they will get bigger, and the small guys won't be able to survive. You have to have a lot more acres to make the money come around, to be able to make it come out. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that if you take something that costs 50 cents to grow, and you have to turn around and sell it for 35 cents, you can't stay here long."

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