A New Kind of Matchmaker Links Young Farmers with Old

When Osmer Crockett began working on his father's Arizona farm, the nation was recovering from a world war -- the first one. The state was still an untamed frontier.Now 80, he labors on the same land. He left once, to attend college and work for six years as a teacher, but he says his heart brought him back to the land.He hasn't thought about retiring, but he admits it may be time to find some help."I've got more land than I can take care of. More than half the land is idle," Crockett said. "I would like to keep an interest in the place but have somebody else come in and gradually take over."For help, Crockett has turned to Ag Link -- a new kind of matchmaker. Based in Ballico, Calif., the agency looks for older farmers who want to pass their land to younger hands.Ag Link is one of 18 organizations patterned after a program called Land Link, designed at the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb. From California to Massachusetts, they are trying to link up young would-be farmers and old retiring farmers. Their ultimate aim is to help save the family farm."We're a dating service. When a match is made, everyone is happy," said Joy Johnson, director of Land Link. If matchmaking fails, says Johnson, the retiring farmer's only option may be to sell to a corporation, with fewer ties to the community and land.Like Crockett in Arizona, Bill and Kathryn Douglas in California are looking for a match -- an older match in their case. They rent a small cattle ranch and almond orchard at the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains.The ranch is nestled in rolling hills about 100 miles east of San Francisco; there isn't another house in sight. In the winter, the land becomes a lush green -- looking almost like a painting.But the income from the modest farm doesn't pay the bills. To make a go of it, the thirtysomething couple needs a larger place, land they can develop as their own.Land, however, is scarce.So for now, Bill works full time as a ranch foreman on someone else's land, caring for a few hundred acres of trees. Kathryn stays at home caring for the couple's three children. "The problem is land out here in the Central Valley is hard to come by," Bill Douglas said. "And where there is land, the price to get it can be out of this world.So the Douglases have added their name to the Ag Link list. And other farmers, on both sides of the generational divide, are doing the same.Each farm link program varies -- some work harder to educate the farmer on his or her alternatives, others simply serve as a clearinghouse of names -- but all of them stress the importance in finding compatible matches."Someone looking for a dairy operation, for example, wouldn't be matched with someone who has a strictly crop operation. The idea is to match facilities and equipment between the two farmers," Johnson said.For this reason, matching the Douglases with Osmer Crockett probably wouldn't work. Crockett deals primarily with cotton and some grains; the Douglases are interested in a livestock operation.Many of the groups formed after 1992, when Land Link hosted the Rural Institute -- a week-long, educational forum designed to share the linking concept with agricultural agencies in other states.From that gathering, interested groups created the National Family Farm/Ranch Transition Network as an umbrella agency to match young people with the desire to farm with older landowners who have the know-how and the resources to help.The Nebraska-based center alone has been a part of more than 75 matches since getting started in 1991. And another 120 people used information provided by the center to arrange their own match, according to the center's last count in 1994.If a match is made, there are several potential benefits for both sides.In many states, first-time farmers can often get loans at below-interest rates to get started. And for retiring farmers, finding a protege helps ease concerns they may have about selling off to a large corporation."It's those values and traditions an older farmer might have about sustaining the community, maintaining a population base. He's also often concerned about the proper use of his land," said Don Ralston, administrative director for the Center for Rural Affairs. "We promote the link as a good choice for these reasons."A sale to a younger farmer can also make the capital gains tax less burdensome, according to Johnson. The tax is currently at 28 percent."Sometimes there are installment plans worked out where the older farmer sells the assets gradually to the younger one. For the older farmer, this stretches out the gain realized, which can ease the capital gains tax burden," Johnson said.By paying a little tax each year, rather than in one big chunk, the older farmer can reinvest the money saved by not paying as much in taxes.For new farmers, a link lets them start without much capital. Often, they may arrange to slowly build their own operation by buying a small percentage of the farm each year."Agriculture is an expensive business. We want to help the young guys get things off the ground," Johnson said. "It's the young farmers who are going to strengthen these rural communities. They'll spend money there, pay their taxes there, raise their families and really help these areas survive."[EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE.]In Pennsylvania, where a matchmaking effort is underway, the number of farmers over 65 is twice that of farmers 35 or younger. The average age of farmers there is slightly above the national average of 50."Farm children just aren't taking over their family farm anymore. They're scared away by the high cost of machinery, equipment and land and the low profit margins," said Marion Bowland, director of Pennsylvania Farm Link. "They see it's a lot easier to get out of it and find a high-paying job where they're not at the whim of things like the weather."Often, the alternative to having a younger farmer take over is to sell to a corporation. But an absentee owner (like a corporation) is less likely to spend money in that rural economy, said Johnson.Crockett knows this and would like to sell to a young family. But he's particular about who he finds for his farm in Arizona. It has to be somebody who, like him, has his heart in farming.Already, he's turned away two suitors -- single men in their 40s with a history of drifting from job to job, Crockett said."You can't be in this to get rich. I've been in it since I was five and really have nothing to show for it, just the farm," Crockett said. "You've got to get into this because you love it, because -- like me -- you can't get farming out of your blood."This article is copyrighted by The American News Service. Permission is granted to republish, reproduce or transmit American News Service articles under two conditions: (1) the material must be clearly identified by the words "The American News Service" and (2) tearsheets, tapes or videotapes of all articles or programs produced as a result of this material must be sent within 30 days to The American News Service, RR 1 Black Fox Road, Brattleboro, VT 05301. For further information, please call 1-800-654-NEWS or e-mail ans@sover.netDarren Waggoner is a business and health reporter for the Lima News in Lima, Ohio. His writing has also appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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