ZILLAH, Wash. — After growing up on a family farm, Shane Stonemetz thought he wanted a different career. But this summer the 30-year-old is harvesting the first fruit from his very own orchards.
“I didn’t have any desire for farming at first … but the older you get, you kind of appreciate more where you come from,” Stonemetz said.
But even with his experience and support from his still-farming father, getting started on his own land wasn’t easy, he said.
“It’s almost impossible for a younger guy to get into this industry if it isn’t handed down,” Stonemetz said. “With the cost of land and all the competition, it’s hard to buy land and buy equipment, and you need to get an operating loan when you might not have collateral.”
Those and other hurdles facing young farmers no doubt contribute to the fact that the Valley’s farmers are getting older and older. The average farm operator in Yakima County is 59.
And Yakima isn’t alone.
Concerns about that graying trend among America’s farmers has led to the creation of public and private programs aimed to help young people break into the industry on their own.
Even with help, it’s a route few are taking. Just over 100 out of about 5,000 farmers in Yakima County had fewer than two years of experience managing their own farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 census. The average is 25 years of experience.
“With the average farmer being 59 years old, we really need that next generation,” said Wendy Knopp, director of a lending program aimed at new farmers at Northwest Farm Credit Services.
Stonemetz credits loans from Northwest Farm Credit and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency beginning farmers program for enabling him to buy a home on a 17-acre orchard of pears and cherries early this year. Combined with some leased land, he’s farming about 60 acres, including apples, peaches, apricots and asparagus.
But the help goes “way beyond loaning money,” he said, explaining that he’s benefited from business classes and networking opportunities provided by Northwest Farm Credit to its new farmer customers.
That program, known as AgVision, has reduced down payment requirements and offers more oversight and educational programs to borrowers to make sure they have the skills they need to get their business off the ground, Knopp said.
“A lot of times their balance sheet isn’t as strong as more tenured producers, they might not have as much of a down payment, so we were looking at ways to make it easier to loan to them but still make a good lending decision,” Knopp said.
She said the program also loans to farmers who still depend on an outside job to support themselves, if they “are passionate about the industry and would be full time if they could.”
That’s a common situation. According to the USDA census, about half of Yakima County’s farm operators work off-farm as well.
“It’s tough for a beginning guy; you have to have a job to get you started,” said Allan Lowe, a 30-year-old hay farmer from Kittitas. “And I’m dependant on my dad, his equipment and expertise, to get the job done. It’d be impossible for me to buy the equipment on my own.”
He just bought his first 50 acres this spring — not far from where he grew up — where he is growing timothy hay and orchard grass. He and his wife work full time at other jobs.
And it is a tough year to get started. The lingering effects of last year’s drought mean lower yields and more weeds in hay fields.
“It’s going to take the whole year to clean it up to get that quality you want to sell,” Lowe said. “So I’ve got to figure out how to make that land payment. … It would be easier if hay prices were where they were a couple years ago.”
New farmers also can benefit from a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Program that gives financial support to farmers who make investments in conservation, such as switching from flood irrigation to sprinklers, said program manager Corey Bonsen.
The NRCS program is available to all farmers, but some of the money is earmarked for beginners so they have a better shot of receiving funding.
Lowe and Stonemetz qualify as beginners, even though they spent years working for their fathers, who have larger hay and fruit farms, respectively. What counts is that they’ve been in the management role for less than 10 years, Knopp said.
And Stonemetz said it definitely feels different being in charge of his own orchards.
“Last year when I was just leasing from him (his father), I didn’t learn as much as when I took on my own land,” he said. “You’ve got to make business decisions and adapt with the trends. … That’s what’s drawing me back to farming, actually, that it’s more of a business.”
Lowe said now that he’s on his own, he’s found himself more worried about the weather. A surprise rain can easily damage hay.
In addition to young farmers wanting to take on their own farms, AgVision works with people who are new to the industry but not necessarily young.
“What I am seeing more now is folks who are over 35 who are beginning producers, either retiring from a different career or they always wanted to farm and now they are getting in,” Knopp said.
The goal of the program is that after six years, borrowers will be able to “graduate” from the AgVision program because they’ll be financially secure enough to use Farm Credit’s normal lending standards, she said.
Some folks, such as small organic growers catering to farmers markets or community-supported agriculture may always stay small, but most borrowers do graduate and keep on farming, Knopp said.
“I see it as a multi-year investment, and I’m looking to the future,” Lowe said. “Overall, getting into this, I knew somewhat what to expect, and I knew that you’re not going to get rich farming.”
Lowe and Stonemetz said they were motivated to take on their own farms when they started families.
“I like helping on Dad’s farm, but I also wanted something I could call my own,” Lowe said. “I loved growing up on a farm, and I wanted my son and maybe if we have more kids, I want them to have the same opportunities I had, learning how to drive equipment and take responsibility for things.”
And Stonemetz said he hopes to see more young farmers get into the industry.
“It’s sad because you’re not seeing as many small farms anymore, not seeing young people getting into it; it’s almost turned into a corporate industry,” he said. “Farming is the roots of America; I hope to see more people getting into it.”
Picture: Shawn Gusty, Yakima Herald, July 16, 2106, Shane Stonemetz inspecting apples