2019 was a memorable year for central Illinois farmers—and not in a good way. Trade disputes cut into prices and drove up anxiety. A soggy planting season led to a late harvest. And just as farmers finally were able to get into this fields this fall, it snowed.
For 27-year-old Gracie Weinzierl, 2019 will be memorable for an entirely different reason. It’s when she became a farmer.
This fall Weinzierl became the proud owner of her very own 20 acres of farmland near Stanford, about 20 minutes west of Bloomington-Normal. Weinzierl’s family had rented and farmed the land for years. But now it’s hers.
“To me, it’s the home farm,” Weinzierl said. “It’s where my great-grandpa farmed. It’s where my grandpa farmed. It’s where my Dad farmed. It’s right up next to the old farmstead.”
Buying it was no easy feat. A “little 20” of farmland doesn’t come onto the market very often. Plus, land is expensive—about $10,000 an acre around here—and 27-year-olds like Weinzierl don’t have a lot of collateral to help get a loan.
“It was a great opportunity for me to get my foot in the door and decide: Is this something I really want to do?” Weinzierl said.
Weinzierl is an outlier: a young, female producer in an industry dominated—at least on paper—by older men. Primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than 6 to 1, according to the latest USDA ag census released earlier this year. That’s a widening gap that the National Young Farmers Coalition says should “concern us all.”
Weinzierl’s journey—from farm-adjacent kid to college student to landowner—shows one possible path for navigating the many barriers that prevent young people from farming.
Weinzierl would go for the occasional tractor ride as a kid, but she was never super engaged in farming. It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she began to see ag as a career. She tried ag education—it wasn’t a good fit—and landed in ag communications. She spent around five years working for big ag companies in St. Louis before returning home to central Illinois last fall, to take a job at the Illinois Farm Bureau.
“When I was in St. Louis, I realized just how disconnected I was from the farm. I missed my combine rides. I wanted to come out. I wanted to know what was going on,” Weinzierl said.
Most cropland in the U.S. is rented—not owned—by the farmers who work it, and the Weinzierls were no different. A few years ago, Weinzierl found out one of her family’s landlords might be interested in selling part of one of the fields.
“I can’t buy all of that, but I knew I’d be interested in a piece of it,” Weinzierl said.
Weinzierl had just come up against the No. 1 challenge facing young farmers: Inability to access farmland. Both first-generation and multigenerational farmers cited land access as their top challenge, according to the 2017 National Young Farmer Survey.
Weinzierl found lenders were not eager to loan her all that money, especially since she didn’t have any other assets to her name. But she got help from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency loan program for beginning farmers, which offered slightly lower interest rates.
It took about five months of paperwork and questions. Way harder than buying a house, which Weinzierl also did this year.
“Essentially, we’re in this partnership together,” Weinzierl said. “They wouldn’t have given me that money if they didn’t think I could make a go of it.”
But in mid-August, Weinzierl closed on the purchase. She had her 20 acres.
“I felt it was a huge accomplishment for me, but then it also sinks in because they hand you the schedule of payments, and it’s like, I have to make payments through 2049. That’s cool. That’s the rest of my life,” she said.
You can’t do much farming without equipment—and that’s another barrier for beginning farmers. New tractors and combines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Again, Weinzierl got help. She worked out a labor-trade agreement with her father and uncle, paying to use their equipment by putting in hours on their operation.
“As a starting farmer, if I didn’t have family in the business, I could not survive on 20 acres with the equipment I would need for a corn and soybean farm,” she said.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Weinzierl is learning from her dad and uncle and getting a handle on the equipment. She already knew plenty about crop and soil science in part because she studied it in college. Soon she’ll be choosing her seed and chemicals—and making countless other decisions she can’t yet anticipate.
Many of them will be financial.
“I won’t lie: I’m nervous in knowing whether or not I’m good enough as a businessperson to be able to sell my crop and be able to cover all of my costs,” she said.
The average age of a primary farm producer in the U.S. rose to 59 years old in 2017, according to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture. The number of young farmers is not keeping pace with the number of farmers aging out of the field, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, which argues that federal farm policy should do more to address barriers to entry.
The latest ag census showed more very big and very small farms. But the number of midsized farms (between 500 and 999 acres) dropped by about 30%. Those who inherit farmland often end up selling it to other farmers in the area who are looking to expand, said Maria Boerngen, assistant professor of agribusiness at Illinois State University.
“As you have fewer farmers doing that work, and more opportunities off the farm for the younger generation, and fewer people growing up on farms in general, it’s really sort of a natural progression that that average farm operator would be getting a little bit older each time we do one of these census reports,” Boerngen said.
Another barrier is time itself. Young people who grew up on the farm and want to take over may have to wait for dad, mom, or even grandpa to retire. Farm income—which has declined since a peak in 2013—can only support so many people.
“I have a lot of individuals in my classes here at Illinois State that are looking at that exact situation,” Boerngen said.
This dynamic plays out again and again.
John Olson, 67, farms corn and beans in McLean. He left the family farm himself for 10 years before returning at age 30. His parents still did a lot of handholding those first few years he and his brother took over. Olson’s dad technically “retired” at age 65 but didn’t crawl out of the combine for the last time until he was 87.
A few years ago, in his early 60s, Olson sat in a room with hundreds of other farmers at a professional development event.
“And I think I was throwing the age curve off to the low side being there. A lot of the guys that were there were older than myself,” Olson said.
Boerngen’s advice to young farmers is to network. Get to know more established farmers and landowners, or even ask to job shadow with one.
“Treat it as almost like a job interview,” Boerngen said. “You make it known that you want to become a farm operator. You want to rent farm ground or increase the number of acres you’re renting. You produce a farm mission statement, a document that says here’s my mission as a farmer, here’s the equipment I have available to me, here’s my experience, here’s how I’ll take care of your land if you choose me to be a renter.”
GRACIE’S SIDE HUSTLE
WGLT caught up with Gracie Weinzierl on a recent Friday afternoon during harvest. She had a tractor cab full of leftover Halloween candy as she waited for her Uncle Dave to dump another load of corn so she could drive it over to the grain elevator in nearby Stanford.
Weinzierl said she’s not ready to ask for a bigger share of her family’s 500-acre operation until her dad or uncle decides to retire or step back.
“The thing is, with farmers, they never actually retire. They’re like, ‘On paper, I’m retired, but I’m still gonna come back and run that combine,’” she said.
When Weinzierl thinks about the future—including expanding to more acreage—she doesn’t see herself ever becoming a full-time farmer. She enjoys her full-time day job at the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington—and the health insurance it provides. (That 2017 survey found that young farmers feel a lack of affordable health insurance puts them at significant risk.)
“Right now, I’m content. I’m learning how to farm. And I’m making sure I have a solid income to reinvest in the farm,” she said.
If Weinzierl does take over the operation one day, she’ll join a growing number of female farmers. About 41% of farmers in their first 10 years of farming are women, and the total number of female principal operators increased by nearly 70%, according to the latest ag census.
Some of that increase, however, may be because the USDA is getting better at tracking the roles that women have long played on farms, according to Boerngen and Weinzierl. The 2017 ag census captured more demographic information from up to four producers per farm. The USDA also added questions about who makes different decisions on the farm.
The USDA found female producers are most heavily engaged in the day-to-day decisions along with recordkeeping and financial management.
Weinzierl said her grandmother would drive trucks filled with grain to the elevator. Boerngen saw the same thing.
“My grandparents in southern Illinois filled this census out numerous times. My grandmother was as much a part of the farm as my grandfather, but under the old data-collection system those things wouldn’t have been captured,” Boerngen said.
It’s not all doom and gloom for young farmers. They have some advantages.
Weinzierl is fluent in social media, has her own podcast (“A Farm Kid’s Guide To Agriculture”) and blog, and uses them to connect with other young ag professionals.
She’s also comfortable with on-farm technology. Her dad and uncle use autosteer tech and have been collecting yield data since 1999, but they haven’t done anything with it.
“I’m really interested to dig into that this winter,” Weinzierl said. “I’ll start looking at consistencies in the field and just try to see what’s going on.”
In her little 20 acres, Weinzierl is also running four trials right now, trying out different cover crops and fungicides, learning now so she can make better decisions later.
Just like farmers have been doing for thousands of years.
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.