WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — They are lawyers, factory workers, insurance adjusters, even an accountant and a dentist. All share the same dream: They want to farm.
And all have applied to a special Iowa program that tries to link aspiring farmers with seasoned landowners who are looking toward retirement — or just planning for the future.
The younger folks, mostly in their 20s and 30s, all have their reasons: a love of the outdoors, a yearning for independence, fond memories of riding a tractor with a grandfather long ago.
Rick Shafer, who at 50 is an exception — he's decades older than most applicants — is trying to return to a world he left behind. He had farmed with his dad in the 1980s, but when high interest rates, low prices and massive debt forced thousands into foreclosure, he quit, thinking he'd return in a few years.
The opportunity never came.
Shafer went on to work as a bank loan officer, farm machinery salesman, real estate appraiser and stock, bond, insurance and commodities broker. He's now a county conservationist for the Agriculture Department.
"Some people think I'm an absolute blithering idiot to try this because I have such a good job," he says. "Others think it's very logical. You reach a certain point in life and you see your mortality on the horizon and say: 'Should I play it safe and never achieve my life's dream or am I at the point here that I go for broke and can say at least I have the guts to try?' "
Shafer's hungry for a second chance and even at middle age, he points out he's "still a kid" to 70- and 80-year-olds tooling about the back roads on their combines.
‘I just like to farm’
About two-thirds of those looking for a match in the Iowa program have some farm experience.
Among them is Adam Klein, a 31-year-old Minnesota dentist, whose grandparents raised cattle in South Dakota. He worked on farms in college and is almost giddy describing how he helped a neighbor during harvest time, sleeping in the basement, hanging on to the farmer's every word.
"Some guys like to play golf," he says. "I just like to farm. ... It's hard to put the words together to really express the excitement of sitting on a tractor in the field with the sun beating down on you."
He's now looking for an older partner, but even if he gets one, he'll also continue his dental practice. "It's just a way to learn more about it and get involved without breaking the bank," he says. "This is what I want to do. It's as simple as that."
Nate Litwin, a Tennessee lawyer, is ready to move to Iowa or any place he can farm with his wife, Karen, also a lawyer, and raise their 5-year-old daughter, Lucy. He recently visited three farm families in Iowa. He, too, plans to continue his legal work.
"A lot of people say, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' I say, 'We definitely do,"' he says. "They say farming is a tough life. At the same time, they tell me about all the great times they had growing up. I was speaking to one farmer who said equipment is so much money and it's a lot of work. .... I said, 'You've been doing it 30 years. Why not quit?' He stopped in his tracks."
Thinking about the future
Dave Baker, the designated matchmaker at the Beginning Farmer Center, tries to get veteran farmers to think about their futures long before they're on the verge of retirement.
One who has, Keith Van Waardhuizen, is just 50, but already is eyeing a potential younger partner. "I don't want to wait until I'm 65 and get an 18-year-old and feel like I'm babysitting the kid," he says.
He's far from ready to call it quits, but is receptive to giving someone a start. "If you can work at a factory and own it by time you're 50," he says, "that's a pretty good deal, isn't it? ... If a young kid wants to make it work, I won't have a problem letting them take over."
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