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Published April 01, 2013, 10:36 AM

Vacant farmsteads, new opportunities

Old way of life nearly gone, but modern ag has its strengths, too

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

On a recent trip through rural North Dakota, I began counting vacant farmsteads. Some still held gray, weather-beaten buildings. Some, their buildings expunged by time, fire or machine, could be identified by their characteristic shape and aging shelterbelts.

Just from the highway, I spotted 14 vacant farmsteads in roughly 20 minutes. Then I quit counting, saddened but unsurprised. Anyone familiar with the rural Upper Midwest knows that vacant farmsteads are ubiquitous.

More than 80 percent of North Dakota farms with 220 to 999 acres have been lost in the past 70 years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana have lost tens of thousands of small farms, too.

If you’re a big believer in small towns, you’re dismayed by the long, steep decline. Fewer farms mean fewer people to shop at local businesses, fewer children to attend local schools. Fewer farms reflect and hasten the relentless erosion in a way of life that many people treasure.

Some people think differently. They prefer modern agriculture, with its bigger, specialized farms, its greater efficiency and expanding use of technology.

And there are critics who say the old way of life was greatly overrated. They say small family farms required too much backbreaking work and that small farm towns fostered stifling conformity at the expense of healthy individuality.

Whichever side of the argument you’re on, there’s no denying that the old way of life is nearly gone.

Other options in ag

Nor is there any denying that modern ag provides many off-farm career opportunities.

One example: I grew up on a farm in central North Dakota. Though I don’t farm, I work in agriculture. They don’t farm either, but five now-grown kids from neighboring farms also work in ag.

One is marketing director for an ag commodity group.

One’s a banker in a farm town.

One’s an agronomist.

One works for a seed company.

One works for the USDA.

All of us, from a tiny area geographically, have careers in modern ag.

If you enjoy agriculture and want to make a career in it, you have many options, regardless of your skills and personality. You might be a scientist. A salesperson. A technician. A government employee. Whatever it is, you still can be involved in agriculture.

There’s a caveat, a big one. Becoming a farmer or rancher today is virtually impossible without help from a family member. Perhaps the greatest fault of modern agriculture is that its daunting economics crush newcomers trying to start from scratch.

My sympathies to people who want to farm or ranch, but lack the family ties to get started. Don’t despair, though: you can find other satisfying careers in ag.

For both better and worse, agriculture on the Northern Plains continues to evolve. The old way of life, with its strengths and weaknesses, is nearly gone. There’s a lot about the old way that I dislike, but I’m a product of it nonetheless. So sometimes I’m disconcerted by vacant farmsteads and what they represent.

But I’m heartened that this next step in agriculture — this new way of life — has much to offer.