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College degree would expand horizons of child who wants to farmCollege degree would expand horizons of child who wants to farm

Agrivision: Panelists agree that off-farm employment offers valuable experience for a young farmer before returning to the family operation.

March 21, 2023

8 Min Read
Farm equipment in field
MORE THAN EDUCATION: College provides an opportunity for networking, which is important because farming can be isolating at times. Farm Progress

My husband and I have three sons and a daughter. We farm 900 acres and milk 80 cows. Our oldest son is a junior in high school. He wants to farm when he graduates next year, but my husband and I think he should go to college and get a four-year degree, or an associate degree from a tech school and work a few years off the farm. How do we convince him this is what he should do? He doesn’t want to listen to us. Who can help him figure out where he should go to school and what he should get a degree in? He only seems interested in farming.

Tom Kestell: Sometimes children do not see that their parents have spent a lifetime in on-the-job education to gain the knowledge and experience to operate their farm successfully. Farming in the future will be more and more driven by new technology and innovation. A look back will quickly bring the realization that this has been going on for at least the past 100 years. It worries me that your son does not want to listen to your sound advice. Project this into the future and try and imagine transitioning the farm to someone who’s deaf to your advice.

Most of the successful, multigenerational farms I know of have guidelines in place to encourage family members to be exposed to higher education, be it a tech school, a mentorship program or even a four-year degree in business, agronomy, mechanical repair, etc. I would talk to multigenerational families with your son and get their advice and prospective. Everyone involved in farming today needs to embrace the idea of lifelong learning. Even adult farmers can greatly benefit from peer group education and interaction with Extension personnel and industry professionals.

A good place to start would be for your son to meet with multigenerational farmers and possibly get a full-time job over the summer and experience farming in a non-family situation. Make sure the farm is different enough so he will be exposed to unfamiliar situations. I also feel part-time jobs as an AI tech or a DHI field tech can be great for exposure to many different farms. In your conversations with your son, stress that your farm needs educated, innovated partners in the future, not just warm bodies.

Sam Miller: I think it is great your son has shown interest in farming. We need the next generation to continue providing food and fiber for society. I also agree with your opinion that he should get an education and possibly some work experience before he comes back to the family farm. Ask your current service providers to visit with him about what they see in successful farming operations — these would include your veterinarian, crop consultant or agronomist, nutritionist, banker, and accountant. As a banker, I would suggest getting an education and work experience at either another farm or in the ag sector to gain perspective, be exposed to different management styles and experiences, and work for someone besides parents.

The pace of change in agriculture is accelerating, whether it is in technology, genetics, nutrition, housing or farming practices. Getting an education provides information and exposure to these changes and sets up the habit of continuing education for the inevitable changes in the future. Good luck exposing your son to additional viewpoints.

Katie Wantoch: My young kids love going to school and learning something new each day. For your son, he might not be learning about the subjects that most interest him. Postsecondary education would provide him with this and many other opportunities. Encourage him to chat with other young farmers and technical college or short course instructors to learn about the education that is provided and see if something might interest him.

College provides an opportunity for networking, which is important, as farming can be isolating at times. The connections he will make in college with other ag students will provide him with new insights, challenge his ideas and build new friendships. College is also a great time for him to explore new interests, given the wide array of courses available. He can learn many new skills outside of agriculture that will help in other areas on the farm, such as welding.

College offers invaluable experiences that high school can’t deliver, including personal independence that can prepare your son for the realities of life. He will be responsible for managing his time, homework and courses, and for expanding his financial literacy. He’ll likely be dealing with things like student loans, credit cards and budgeting. This, in turn, will teach him money management skills that will be useful for the rest of his life, and especially in the farm business. Encourage your son to seek out others who can share their college experiences.

Owning vs. selling farm

My wife and I sold our cows and machinery in 2013. We both took full-time jobs in town, and we rent our land to the neighbor. We are 64 and 63 and planning to retire from our jobs in three or four years. We have no debt on the farm. We are trying to decide if we would be better off selling our 240-acre farm that we bought 40 years ago and buying a house in town, or remodeling our old farmhouse, which we updated 20 years ago, and continuing to rent our land to the neighbor. We will get about $2,800 a month from Social Security combined, and we have about $150,000 in our IRAs. The neighbor pays us about $30,000 a year for our tillable land. Our son and daughter are married, have jobs and do not want to farm. What are your thoughts?

Tom Kestell: Congratulations on your debt-free status. This gives you many more options in your retirement. Most of these decisions become personal ones when you have options. Are you happy in your present home? Will it meet your needs into the future? Do you want to continue to live in the country or would a new adventure in the city fit your lifestyle? What condition are the other buildings on the farm? Do they fit your needs for your retirement plans? Old, outdated buildings can be very expensive to maintain. Many times, it is better if you sell your existing home and buildings, and then build exactly what you envision as your retirement home, possibly on part of your existing farm that is non-tillable.

As for selling your property, I would talk to a tax consultant about all the implications about selling property that you have owned for over 40 years. I believe you will have adequate income to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. But as I wonder back and forth with the pros and cons of different options, the decision finally comes down to what you and your wife want to do. What will give you the most satisfaction in your retirement? I would think long and hard and discuss what both of you see as your ideal retirement situation, and then take steps to make that reality come true.

Sam Miller: First, congratulations on thinking ahead to retirement with a number of financial pieces in great shape for your future. I suggest meeting with your accountant to discuss the pros and cons of selling appreciated farmland and the expected capital gains taxes vs. renting out the farm, remodeling and remaining on the land.

Next, if you do not have a financial adviser, I suggest getting engaged with one to assist in retirement planning. They can review your current assets and investments, assist with a retirement budget, and provide expectations of meeting your income and expenses over your life expectancy. When you have both the financial plan and the tax impact plan, you can make an informed decision for your future. Your banker or accountant may have suggestions for a financial planner, if you don’t already have one. Gather a few names, interview them, ask for references and make a choice. Good luck with your plans.

Katie Wantoch: Disposing of your farm assets is a major decision. Of all the assets, the farm real estate is usually a major portion and the most valuable. Here are a few things to consider about owning vs. selling your farm. Owning your farmland can provide a secure annual income throughout your retirement years if rented to a tenant. Typically, a simple cash-rental agreement is less risky for the owner than share-renting or other arrangements. However, you will need to maintain the rental contracts, land rental rates, care of the land and any liability exposure. Land can be viewed as a hedge against inflation, meaning that land will hold its value despite other rising or lowering costs and investments. Real estate taxes may change and result in high costs to you.

Since purchasing your farm 40 years ago, the value of your property has most likely increased. When you sell the farm, you will need to pay capital gains tax and other taxes on the difference (gain) in these values. Some farmers would prefer to have the cash available from the sale to invest elsewhere and use during their retirement. You and your wife should spend some time thinking through your options, meet with financial advisers, and then make a decision that will meet your retirement needs.

Agrivision panel: Tom Kestell, dairy farmer, Sheboygan County, Wis.; Sam Miller, managing director, group head of agricultural banking, BMO Harris Bank; and Katie Wantoch, statewide Extension farm management outreach specialist/professor of practice. If you have questions you would like the panel to answer, send them to: Wisconsin Agriculturist, P.O. Box 236, Brandon, WI 53919; or email [email protected].

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