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Published July 22, 2013, 09:21 AM

A new crop of farmers

A new generation of the O'Toole family of Crystal, N.D., is preparing to enter the family farming operation.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CRYSTAL, N.D. — After 134 years of farming here, the O’Toole family has gone through its share of generational transitions. Another is under way now.

Fourth-generation farmer Brian O’Toole has been joined by sons, Casey and Kelly, and son-in-law, Frank Olimb.

“I must be a pretty good salesman. I recruited them all back to the farm,” says O’Toole, 54, with a smile.

Then, turning serious, he adds, “No, it was entirely their own decision. With farming, it needs to be. If your heart isn’t in it, stay away from it.”

What’s occurring on the O’Toole farm is increasingly common in Upper Midwest agriculture. Many baby-boomer farmers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are nearing retirement, and strong commodity prices are helping to attract a new generation of farmers.

Bringing in young blood has been a priority for U.S. agriculture, given the age of many producers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, which provides the most current information available, put the average age of U.S. farmers at 57.1.

Montana farmers on average were 58.4 years old, with North Dakota farmers averaging 56.5, Minnesota farmers 56.3 and South Dakota farmers 55.7.

In contrast, the average age of all workers was 41 years, according to U.S. government figures.

Anecdotal evidence — such as the growing number of farmers in their 20s and 30s attending agricultural workshops and conferences — suggests that the average age of farmers, both nationwide and in the Upper Midwest, has declined since the 2007 census.

More will be known when the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its 2012 census next year. USDA is now analyzing results of its recently completed survey.

Transition not easy

Everyone familiar with farming agrees that bringing a new generation into the family farm can be challenging. Balancing what’s best for the older generation with the financial and emotional needs of the new generation isn’t easy.

“There’s a lot to consider, a lot to deal with,” says Ron Beneda, a veteran Cavalier (N.D.) County extension agent who has been involved with farm transition workshops.

Just one example:

Say a farm couple has several children, one of whom wants to farm. The parents would like to treat all their children the same financially, but they also want to make it possible for the one child to farm. Reconciling those two goals may not be possible, experts say.

“You have all the financial and legal things to deal with, and there are the emotional aspects, too,” Beneda says.

Farm transition from one generation to the next has become even more difficult as farmland values have soared in recent years, he and others say.

The most important thing, Beneda says, is to start early. “Don’t wait until the last minute to start having these discussions.”

Local or regional extension agents are a good starting point for information on farm transition.

Brian O’Toole says that while his family doesn’t have all the answers, it’s developed an approach that seems to be working.

“We give them (his children) acres they farm on their own. They put up a plan. They have to borrow, they have to insure it,” he says.

“We cultivated them into this operation. I think they’re well capable of handling it. It’s not thrown on their laps,” he says.

Long history

O’Toole is a familiar name in the Crystal area, about 65 miles north of Grand Forks, N.D.

Five generations of the family, through a number of farming entities, have worked the soil of North Dakota’s Pembina County since 1879.

Third-generation farmer Dick O’Toole, 78, is Brian O’Toole’s father. Dick retired in 2000 and insists he’s no longer active in farming — “There’s too much technology now” — but family members say he helps out as needed.

He’s seen good times in agriculture before, “but nothing like what we’ve had the past few years,” he says.

Like other older farmers who struggled through difficult eras in agriculture, Dick worries about today’s high land prices and input costs.

Tom O’Toole, Dick’s nephew, is Brian O’Toole’s farming partner. Tom, 67, still enjoys farming. But he’s thinking seriously about retirement and considering how to transfer his farming interests to the next generation of O’Tooles.

“You need some professional help,” he says of making the transition from one generation to the next. “You really need to understand the financial consequences.”

Brian praises the contributions that his father and Tom have made to the family farm through the years.

“I couldn’t have worked with two better guys,” he says.

Brian’s son, Casey, 29, has returned to the family farm, which raises wheat, corn, sugar beets, soybeans and edible beans. He spent several years as a welder in Fargo, N.D., where he worked on agricultural products.

“It kind of made me homesick for farming, so I came back. I’m glad I have the opportunity,” he says.

“Farming isn’t just a job. It’s a way of life,” says Casey, who sells seed in addition to farming.

Seed business

Brian O’Toole and his wife, Sara, also operate a seed business in rural Crystal.

The business conditions about 200,000 bushels of wheat annually and sells certified wheat. It also cleans soybeans and edible beans, and is a receiving station for edible beans.

Recent expansion, which includes a new color sorter, allows the seed business to handle more beans, Brian says.

Frank Olimb, 32, who’s married to Allison, Brian and Sara’s daughter, joined the seed business in 2010 after working as a manager for an industrial carpentry company.

Soon after getting married, Frank and Allison moved to the O’Toole farmstead, where they initially lived in an apartment in the farm shop.

“Come back to the farm and live in the shop,” Allison says with a smile.

The couple and their year-old-son, Gary, now have a house in Crystal.

Being able to raise a family in a rural area such as Crystal, population about 150, was one of the reasons Frank and Allison moved there, Allison says.

“There’s a lifestyle here you just can’t get in the city,” she says.

Allison is editor of the Walsh County Press in nearby Park River, N.D., and also helps the family seed business with marketing and promotions.

Sara O’Toole handles paperwork for the seed business. She and Brian, who had known each other when they were young, reconnected in college, where she studied nursing and he studied diesel mechanics.

Adam Nielson, not an O’Toole family member, also works for the seed company.

Second son, third company

A separate business, K.B. O’Toole Farms, is run by Kelly O’Toole and his father. It raises chip potatoes, most of which go to Barrel O’ Fun in Perham, Minn.

Kelly, 24, has studied commercial aviation with the goal of becoming a professional pilot.

But he’s been involved in farming since he was 8 years old and never really left the family farm, he says.

Kelly shrugs when asked if he worries that recent prosperity in agriculture won’t last.

“You take what comes and you deal with it,” he says. “This is what I want to do.”

Brian and Sara’s fourth child, Rebecca, attends Jamestown (N.D.) College.

Brian, who has no plans to retire any time soon, has been active in many farm groups and organizations. This spring, he was elected secretary/treasurer of U.S. Wheat Associates, which develops export markets for U.S. wheat.

“There’s no way I could be in that position for U.S. Wheat Associates without all the help from my family,” he says.

On the day Agweek visited, Brian’s two young grandsons — Gary, Frank and Allison’s son, and Dylan, Casey and Kelli’s son, — were playing in the seed company office.

Brian smiles when asked if someday he’ll be working with his two grandsons, who would be sixth-generation farmers.

“Well, it’s too early to know that, of course. But I hope they have the chance if that’s what they want,” he says.

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