updated 3/20/2006 1:53:36 PM ET 2006-03-20T18:53:36

Earl Martz winces at the idea that one day someone other than a Martz may work the farm his family has owned for generations.

Martz, 71, raised hogs, corn and soybeans on the same 160 acres his father bought in 1913. Two of his three sons now are working the land, but the future of the family farm seems uncertain.

Soaring land values and operating costs, competition from large-scale operations, tax hurdles and market forces have made it difficult for young families to take over for the nation's graying farmers.

"I really don't think my grandchildren will farm," said Martz, now a year into retirement. "We don't know what will happen to it, really, after our two sons are done farming here."

The questions facing the Martz family are familiar to many American farmers and ranchers.

A 2002 survey by farm economists at Iowa State University found that nearly 25 percent of Iowa farmland owners are 75 or older. Another 24 percent are 65 to 74, and nearly 22 percent are 55 to 64.

The most recent census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows a similar trend nationwide. Based on 2002 figures, the average age of America's estimated 2 million farmers is 55.3 years.

The next national agriculture census is scheduled for 2007, but economists say there is scant evidence to suggest the trend will reverse any time soon.

"The average age of the farmer is going up year after year after year," said Pat O'Brien, an economist with the American Farm Bureau. "And one result of that is that we're seeing right now more and more land being concentrated in the hands of older owners."

Mike Duffy, professor of farm economics at Iowa State University, says research in Iowa shows an increase in land held by joint tenants and trusts — often by multiple heirs — as retirees turn the farm over to their children.

While some children choose to farm, many more have other careers. As a result, Duffy says, multiple-heir ownership has put more land in the hands of people who live away from the farm or out of state.

In 1982, 37 percent of Iowa farmland was owned by someone living off the farm. By 2002, that had risen to 45 percent, according to Duffy's research.

"What we anticipate seeing is more land being owned by more people who don't live in the state any more," Duffy said. "That just means more income leaves the state and the rural communities."

The trend also has contributed to rising land values and consolidation of land by bigger, established operators, officials say. While rising land prices benefit older farmers, many of whom rely on cash rent for retirement income, inflated prices are discouraging the hopes of the next generation of farmers.

"It doesn't take a very smart guy to realize the numbers are stacked against you," said Steven Houston Jr., a 31-year-old part-time farmer from Donaldsonville, Ga., in the state's southwest corner.

When he's not driving trucks to help pay the bills, Houston says he raises wheat, peanuts and cotton on 220 rented acres. But his dream is to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and farm full time.

"It's so hard to be able to afford extra land," said Houston, adding that his father recently sold some farmland for $3,300 per acre.

"If your daddy isn't already an established, big farmer, where you can use the name to start up a partnership, you really don't have much of a chance these days," he said.

The federal government has programs designed to help a new generation of farmers buy or rent land, but critics say the federal farm payment system offsets the good intentions of future farming programs.

"The reality is that agricultural land, the value of it, the cost of it, has been artificially inflated by the unlimited farm payment system," said John Crabtree, spokesman of the Center for Rural Affairs, a private, nonprofit farm issues group based in Lyon, Neb.

"It's not that the younger generation doesn't want to farm," he said, "it's that we've created so many economic barriers for them to enter the field."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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