Landon Vilhauer's need to farm was like the force of a tractor beam, only less science fiction and more John Deere. Vilhauer, of Loyal, Oklahoma, is a sixth generation farmer. His great, great, great grandfather came to Oklahoma in 1895, two years after one of the legendary land runs, and purchased a quarter of land for each of his two youngest sons. His family still lives on one of the quarters and the other is located close by.
A 2009 agribusiness and finance graduate of Oklahoma State University, he says, growing up, he always knew coming back to the farm was an option, but it was not until his sophomore and junior years of college that Vilhauer realized farming was his future.
“I don’t necessarily think I chose it, but I’m positive that it chose me,” Vilhauer explained. “God put it on my heart to want to do this. Production agriculture chooses its people, and farming is in my blood.”
Vilhauer and his father, Clark, run their farm together. The operation consists of 6,500 acres split between pasture and cropland. They run a cow-calf operation and raise wheat, sesame, forage and grain sorghum, alfalfa, rye and canola.
“I’m more excited about farming now than I was when I first came back to the farm 10 years ago,” he said. “I think there is a lot of opportunity to capture value and quality in the crops and meat that we raise.”
However, Vilhauer admits farming is arduous.
“Farming is a lot of commitment and dedication and it’s really challenging, but it’s very rewarding too,” he said. “It takes lifetimes of experience to learn how to farm, and I’m just benefiting from the five generations before me.”
Vilhauer advises aspiring farmers to make sure they do not want to do anything else but farm before they decide it is the right profession for them. The love for working ground, harvesting crops and raising livestock is a passion that cannot be phoned in.
“People called to work in production agriculture could not be happy if they were not tilling the land,” he said. “If I wasn’t on a farm I’d have withdrawals.”
Challenges for all ages
Most would consider Vilhauer somewhat of an outlier on the age scale of the American farmer since the increasing age of farmers is a commonly discussed issue. However, the problem does not seem as critical when compared to previous data.
The average age of the American farmer has been greater than 50 since at least the 1974 U.S. Department of Agriculture census. In 2017 the average age was pegged at 57.5, up 1.2 years since 2012. If in 43 years, the age has only gone up seven and a half years total, the age of the American farmer seems less of a concern than it has been made out to be. The USDA also indicated in 2017, 8% of producers were less than 35 years of age, 58% were 35 to 64 years of age and 34% were 65 or older. Of producers of all ages, 27% have 10 or less years of experience.
Vilhauer is not so concerned with the slowly rising age of farmers. He says he has noticed a lot of young people returning to the farm in his area. However, he concedes the challenges family farms face with the amount of revenue they can generate versus the number of people a farm can support these days, does limit who can continue in the family business.
“It’s really not feasible for a lot of people to come back to the farm because there just isn’t room for them,” he said.
Vilhauer says he notices the increasing number of farms lost each year because someone retires and rather than passing the farm down to a relative, it just gets absorbed into bigger operations.
According to the most recent USDA census, taken in 2017, there are now 2.04 million farms in the United States, which is down 3.2% since the 2012 census. The average farm size in 2017 was 441 acres, up 1.6% from 2012.
Vilhauer says another worry he has is that farmers continue to retain less and less value of what they produce. As per the USDA, in 2017 the farm share of each food dollar expenditure was 14.6 cents and the marketing share was 85.4 cents. However, the concern at the forefront for Vilhauer, has less to do with numbers and more to do with communication.
“I think the biggest challenge in agriculture today is the disconnect we have with the consumers of our food,” Vilhauer said. “The fewer people we have out there farming, the bigger the disconnect. One generation ago or thirty years, everybody had a connection to the farm, but now there’s a lot of people who have no connection to the farm. When another generation goes by, they’re just not going to know where their food comes from at all.”
Although more family farms may cease to operate in the future as they consolidate with larger operations, Vilhauer believes many of those farms will stay afloat and above all, the family farm lifestyle will be sustained.
“I take a lot of pride in our family traditions and values,” he said. “Too many people are attached to the family farm and can’t let it go. It’s a great place to raise a family and learn work ethic and those are pretty invaluable.”
As for Vilhauer, it is safe to say his future has been decided and he will not be leaving the farm anytime soon. That tractor beam has a tight hold on him with no signs of it releasing him in the near future.
“I think farming is probably the most noble profession out there, we’re not doing it on the backs of anyone else,” he said.
Lacey Newlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.