Paul Minor – a Bristol, Connecticut, native who runs the farm his great, great, great grandfather opened more than 150 years ago – is finally stepping away from the family business.
Minor’s Farm has for decades been a staple of the community, offering fall festivals each year replete with hayrides, pumpkin patches, inflatable obstacle courses and small trikes and tractors for visiting children to peddle around.
“I run into people all across the country who have ties back to Connecticut who would bring their kids to pick apples,” Minor says, though he notes that he and his father, who passed away in late 2017 at the age of 93, have at times both been forced to funnel Social Security checks and retirement incomes into the operation to keep it afloat.
Back in the 1960s, Minor’s Farm grew apples and peaches, had its own cider mill and ran a small dairy operation with several cows. But years of unpredictable prices and weather – coupled with competition from larger agriculture operations and relatively high taxes in the state of Connecticut – have worn on the family business. Minor’s Farm is now open just a month and a half out of the year, and, at 69 years old, Minor says the money and time required to keep the operation afloat just doesn’t make sense for him.
“I got to thinking about my memories. This last fall, we had a decent fall. It wasn’t that bad. And all of my grandkids and my brothers’ grandkids were able to come up from Virginia and North Carolina, and they got to experience all of our activities,” Minor says. “They got to see the games and the kids are having fun. My grandkids are going to have a last memory of the farm, and I want to go out on a high, not a low.”
U.S. agriculture is in some sense a fickle industry, as many crops and products are at the mercy of local and global price fluctuations, access to a particular vendor or market, unpredictable weather patterns, machine and chemical prices, consumer demand and competition around them.
Many of these pressures have been around for decades, but agriculture has undergone a considerable shift toward larger farms in recent years, leaving small- and mid-sized operations pressured to expand – in some cases by buying out their friends and neighbors – or get out of the way of the bigger enterprises.
A report published last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 51 percent of the total value of American farm production in 2015 was generated by large farms with at least $1 million in sales each year. In 1991, that number sat at 31 percent.
And between 1987 and 2012, the percentage of all U.S. cropland on farms with at least 2,000 acres more than doubled, from 15 percent to 36 percent. What that means is that big farms have gotten bigger and become even more significant players in the industry. Their expansion has come at the expense of small- and mid-sized farms.
“Land is moving out of mid-sized farm classes and into the largest class,” James MacDonald, the chief of the structure, technology and productivity branch at the USDA’s Economic Research Service, said last month during a webinar focused on the department’s latest report.
MacDonald said the number of small farms the USDA recognizes has actually increased in recent years – partially the result of better statistical analyses bringing in farms that weren’t previously counted. Despite that increase, however, he noted that the department has witnessed “acreage and production shifting out of that middle category” and into larger farms.
This shift has been especially apparent in the dairy subsector. Large and very large farms in 2015 accounted for 72 percent of all dairy production, according to the USDA, which identifies dairy as the only livestock industry that has “continued rapid consolidation” since 2007.
“It’s almost to the point that if you don’t get big, you need to get out of the way. Thirty years ago, a 30 cow herd was obsolete. And now, my 100-cow herd is like what a 30-cow herd used to be,” says Jeff Alexander, a Michigan farmer who earlier this year was forced to close a dairy operation started by his parents 40 years ago.
He and his wife, state Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Mich., have for decades helped maintain Na-Lar farms, named for Jeff’s parents, Nadine and Larry. They grow other crops such as soybeans, wheat and corn, but dairy was a considerable part of the farm’s operations.
“My dad’s 82, and he said to me, ‘I was hoping I’d be dead before I had to see the cows leave.’ Well, 40 years of my life, I give my blood, sweat and tears out there in that barnyard to those big-hearted girls,” Jeff says. “But it’s an awful hard lifestyle. And because my one son left, the workload was too much for my one son that’s on the farm and I to handle.”
Faced with a shortage of manpower and pressures from larger dairy producers, Rep. Alexander in February took to Facebook to notify friends and family that the farm’s dairy operation would be shut down. She also took the opportunity to reflect on the work that went into and joy that came out of their years in milk production.
“When the cows left at the end of January, [Jeff] made it clear he didn’t want to post. And I get that. I respect that. It’s our personal story,” Rep. Alexander says, noting that difficult-to-predict regulatory changes and pricing pressures contributed to the family’s decision to discontinue dairy production.
But she said over time, it became clear that they needed to get their message out there to help other family farms who may just “bury their heads in the sand and keep plugging away.”
Dairy – like many branches of agriculture – is a capital-intensive business. Jeff notes that most dairy farmers inherit equipment from friends or family members but that starting a new operation would likely require an investment of around $1 million. And even if farmers have access to old equipment, they may still need to buy new machinery to bolster their productivity and keep up with massive operations that have the money to buy equipment that helps cut down on their labor costs.
“If you own 1,800 to 2,000 acres and it’s all in one big deal, an automated tractor, that baby pays off,” says John Phipps, a commentator for “Farm Journal” and “Top Producer” magazines with a lengthy resume in the Illinois agriculture community and a 2,300-acre farming operation he maintains with his son, Aaron. “You go out in the field, and that work is done. I can do it, and my knees aren’t very good.”
Phipps is a sixth-generation farmer on his family’s land in eastern Illinois. The farm was roughly 640 acres in 1975, when Phipps returned to Illinois after operating submarines for the Navy.
With the help of his wife, Jan, Phipps had grown the farm to roughly 1,600 acres by the mid-2000s. And when their son Aaron returned home a little more than a decade ago after working in Texas and Utah, Phipps says the family decided to buy up even more nearby land to make themselves more competitive.
He says he expects small farms will continue to play a role in the agriculture landscape going forward – particularly operations that provide seasonal events and specialized crops. But for Phipps, adding more acreage was the way to go.
“The ground that we’ve picked up, as we’ve expanded, it’s [from] heirs who couldn’t get along, it’s guys who got divorced, and it’s guys who went broke or guys that for one reason or another left the business,” Phipps says, though he notes that he and his son have only bought up nearby land and won’t farm more than an hour’s walk from home to optimize efficiency and cut down on commuting time. “But I’m always conscious of the fact that it’s not just my family farm. I’m really carrying on a heritage for a bunch of other families, as well. And they all just happen to be neighbors.”
Another peculiarity of the farming business is the degree to which it is dominated by family operations. The USDA estimates family farms accounted for nearly 90 percent of America’s total agricultural production in 2015. Nearly 80 percent of all U.S. farms that generated at least $5 million in sales that year were family-owned operations.
Phipps says there are certain business advantages to such a family-oriented structure – notably, that farmers can have their children operate machinery and work long hours that likely wouldn’t be permissible in a standard business. He says he once got into a row with a group of farmers at a conference when he described a picture of an 8-year-old driving a large combine as “irresponsible.” The other farmers, evidently, did not agree.
“The minute you go outside the family, you’re immediately subject to about half the departments in the government. There’s paperwork and liability. As long as it’s all family, you can pretty much do anything you want,” he says, noting that he and his son only choose to expand if it means they won’t have to hire workers from outside of the family to manage the additional cropland.
But he says there are also glaring disadvantages to that structure. Even the biggest family farms can be broken down as owners die, retire, divorce or go bankrupt. Feuds between siblings and relatives run a considerable risk of capsizing a profitable farming operation, especially as inheritance and estate planning come into play.
“That’s actually a fatal flaw,” he says. “[I know] two brothers who happened to have a 5,000 to 6,000-acre operation. Just a beautiful operation. One brother got divorced, and he and his brother fell out, and the whole thing just fell to pieces. The business is dependent upon the health of the family.”
Phipps says Aaron and his other son, Jack, who lives in Chicago and does not actively work on the farm, are working out exactly how to handle their inheritance once Phipps walks away from farming entirely – though he says he’s optimistic they’ll come to an agreeable solution.
But Minor’s children moved out of Connecticut years ago and aren’t working in agriculture, leaving him without an apparent heir to take over the family business.
“My brother is 4 and a half years younger than me. And he had a great job. He wasn’t interested in the farm. So my wife and I were the ones doing that with my dad anyway,” Minor says. “We have relied on family and friends to help us for many, many years now. Cousins and uncles and grandmothers and church kids help us out with the games and stuff. But they’re all getting old, too.”
Similar predicaments have left many farmers in a bind. They’re in a difficult industry and handling land that in some cases has been passed down through multiple generations. Phipps says many farmers are unwilling to throw in the towel – even when their operations are hemorrhaging money. He says the shame some farmers feel during hard times has likely contributed to elevated suicide rates among agriculture workers. A Centers for Disease Control study in 2016 profiled instances of suicide in 17 states and found that farming, fishing and forestry workers – particularly men – had considerably greater suicide rates than those in other professions.
“What I try to do is say out loud what we just struggle so hard to admit to ourselves or our wife or our family: ‘Things are getting worse, I think we ought to quit,'” Phipps says. “It’s just not part of our culture.”
Minor, though, says he’s looking forward to life after farming – and he’s already lined up a retirement gig. Minor has spent parts of the past several years traveling across the country with his two pugs and Daisy, a potbellied pig that has garnered international attention as a part of Minor’s “Pig Out on Reading” presentations.
The entourage – which in recent years has featured Daisy II after the original Daisy passed away in 2009 – regularly visits schools, libraries, church functions and assisted living facilities, encouraging children to become more active readers and inspiring nostalgia in adults who may have grown up on a farm. And although Minor says he’s looking forward to spending more time traveling with his animal brigade, he says he recognizes how fortunate he is to have something he’s passionate about waiting for him after farming.
“We got to bring a lot of joy into the lives of others on the farm. And now I get to do it with schools, with churches, wherever we are,” Minor says, noting he’s regularly booked for 300 shows each year and has been to all 48 contiguous states for presentations. “Just as the farm was my passion when I was younger, it’s my passion to encourage kids to read now.”