Plans match aspiring farmers with pros

August 17, 2009 11:11:44 AM PDT
He quit his job and drove his wife and their four young daughters across country, a 21st-century pioneer lured to these faraway farm fields by the promise of a life-changing deal with an older stranger. Isaac Phillips always wanted to be a farmer. But some friends as well as colleagues at the Utah jail where he supervised inmate work crews were leery, telling him: a) don't give up a steady job, b) you're making a big mistake and c) it's a crazy idea.

Phillips knew the business he was plunging into was risky, that there were no guarantees for him in these Iowa hills. And yet, the family moved more than 1,000 miles.

"I thought I may never get a chance like this in my life," Phillips says, two years into his new rise-with-the-rooster career. "I knew there was no way I could do this on my own."

How did this thirtysomething Garth-Brooks look-alike, who had the drive but not the dollars, start farming in Iowa?

He had an instant mentor here: John Adam, who planted his boots on this swath of black earth as a 19-year-old newlywed and over five decades helped raise four children, harvested corn and beans, bred sows and collected a wall of plaques and honors.

Now, the two men - the rosy-cheeked apprentice and the silver-haired teacher - are working together on Adam's farm. One day, if all goes well, Phillips hopes to call part of this land his own.

This is farm matchmaking, a down payment on the future of rural America.

The idea is being tried in a growing number of states as farmers are getting older and working longer: The average age rose to 57 (from 55) and the ranks of the 75-and-up set increased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2007, according to a recent survey. Meanwhile, the number of those younger than 25 has dropped by nearly a third.

The high cost of getting started is intimidating, even for enthusiasts such as Phillips.

So what to do?

Pair the two generations in special programs. Aspiring farmers then don't have to go into deep debt to launch their careers and can hook up with a farmer in his 50s, 60s, or 70s - ideally one who doesn't have heirs who want to follow in his footsteps.

If their personalities mesh, the two can become partners. Later, the hope is the established farmer will sell, rent or make some other arrangement that keeps the younger one on the land.

There's a broader goal, too: Save the family farm. And a bonus: Put more kids in rural schools, pour more money into Main Street, preserve small towns.

No one sees this as THE solution for stemming the exodus in rural America. And no one denies there are financial and emotional minefields.

But Dave Baker, the matchmaker who united Phillips and Adam, is a true believer. It's his job to connect fresh-faced wannabes from across the country with Iowa farmers preparing for retirement - or merely pondering it.

"You're not going to take it with you," he tells the established farmers. "You can't place the dirt in the coffin. ... Who else is going to have it? The highest bidder? How does that affect your community? How does it affect your family name? What do you want your legacy to be?"

--- More than 30 years ago, Dave Baker was pining for his own piece of land.

While stationed in the Air Force in Germany, he wrote to a distant relative in Iowa, asking for a chance to rent some pasture when he returned.

Back home, Baker worked days and farmed nights and weekends, settling in slowly to a place that's still home.

At Iowa State University, he takes credit for helping arrange more than 30 matches in three years. (A few have fizzled.) It's similar to a dating service, only land and livelihoods are at stake as Baker sifts through applications, searching for compatible pairs. Are they farrow-to-finish guys? Do they prefer chickens to calves?

With Iowa having lost about a quarter of its farms in the last three decades, it's no surprise this idea has taken root here - though several other states are doing something similar.

In Oregon, a new program reaches out to aspiring farmers and those leaving agriculture, looking for possible partners. In Virginia, an online database tries to hook up the two generations. In Nebraska, there are tax breaks for farmers who rent to beginners. And in Washington state, a nonprofit group has 300 people eager to start (mostly organic) farming, and 65 landowners looking to give someone a try.

Turning over a farm isn't easy.

There are folks whose nest egg is their land and heirs who won't farm but won't sell, either. And there are old-timers, in their 70s and 80s, who see farming as their identity and their family tradition.

"It's your mooring in life," says Paul Lasley, an Iowa State sociologist. "The land represents more than a business. It's your home. ... For some people, it's very difficult to sell. It's almost like selling part of themselves."

--- John Adam's original plan was to build a big family farm.

His four children would be there, then the grandkids, working together.

He started small with his wife, Colleen - 10 cows, 20 sows - and grew big (1,800 hogs). One day, he expected he'd pass the torch.

"That's kind of the hope and dream of every farmer," he says. Then the farm crisis of the 1980s hit. Interest rates soared, land values plummeted. "The '80s took the fun out of farming for everyone," Adam says. "It ruined an awful lot of families."

He survived, but when his two daughters and two sons "saw their mother and I struggling to pay the bills," he says, they attended college and found good jobs. He wasn't one to argue with their success.

But decades of heavy labor have taken their toll. Adam, who had a hip replaced twice, says he isn't as agile as he once was - something that makes a difference when handling 500-pound sows.

"I'm 64," he says. "I'm not capable of doing what I did when I was 34. It was time to get young blood in, not just for the physical side, but for the business side of it."

His son-in-law works on the farm, but didn't want to be the in-charge guy, Adam says, so he applied to Baker's program. He was immediately sold on Isaac and Katie Phillips.

Adam says his own kids "all gave their blessing" to the idea. And he has come to see the Utah couple as extended members of his clan.

"My theory has always been you really don't have to be a blood relative to be considered family," he says. "Family is someone who makes life more pleasant, and Isaac does that."

--- In a way, Isaac Phillips won a lottery.

Only a few dozen Iowa farmers are looking for partners. Nearly 350 suitors are itching for a shot. Most are from Iowa, ranging from 18 to their 30s; others come from states including Texas, Oklahoma, New York and California.

Phillips had farmed in Utah, raised horses and bred hogs on the side. But it wasn't enough to support a growing family.

As a sheriff's deputy, Phillips had security, but not job satisfaction. He and Katie had long talks about trying to farm, but figured they probably wouldn't get a response to their application.

So when Adam phoned two years ago, Phillips was thrilled. Phillips says he and his wife were hesitant to move to Iowa without a contract, but ultimately decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

In Iowa, the Adams welcomed Isaac and Katie with a farm tour, showed them the Mormon church the Utah couple had already chosen and drove them to the school their girls would attend.

"If the wife ain't happy, nobody's happy," explains Adam, who also remodeled a four-bedroom farm house for the young family. For Isaac, there were beginner's jitters.

"I thought, 'Am I smart enough? There are so many people who don't make it,' " he says. "`How can I guarantee I'll have something for my family?' "

But he adds: "John really took me under his wing. If I tried to buy a farm out there and work it by myself, I would have been a nervous wreck. ... He's not looking over my shoulder all the time. He gives me a little bit of freedom."

Adam, in turn, is impressed with Phillips. "I don't think I've ever heard him say he couldn't do something," he says. "He's always willing to try."

Still, the men have different styles. Phillips likes to write things down; Adam, he says, thinks things out in his head. "I come to him with all these ideas," Phillips says. "He says, 'Just relax, settle down."'

There have been a few "ruffled feathers," Phillips says, but they've bonded, too. His daughters - he now has five, 10 months to 12 years - affectionately call Adam, "Grandpa John Deere."

The girls quickly adapted to rural life; they help Dad feed the sows, then rush in to give Mom "stinky hugs and kisses."

"We came out here thinking this isn't going to be temporary - it was forever," says Katie Phillips.

As much as they've settled in, the two men still have no written contract.

"I'm still trying to find my place," Phillips says. "I feel a lot more comfortable with where I am and what I'm expected to do," but, he adds: "Am I here as employee? ... Are people expected to look to me for answers? There still is a lot to figure out."

Phillips finds himself feeling different ways, depending on the circumstances.

"Sometimes he (Adam) has to look back, and say, "Calm down,' so it's like a real father and son," he says. "Sometimes he has to say, 'I'm the boss. This is the way we're doing it.' ... But he looks out for me and my family and I look out for his business and family - and we both care a lot for one another."

Phillips would like to be a landowner here one day and expand. As he looks far ahead, he wonders if his daughters will follow him. If so, great.

If not, he has another idea: Mentoring someone himself one day.

"There's nothing better than seeing a dream come true," he says. "I would love to turn around and do this for somebody else."


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