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Published January 13, 2014, 09:20 AM

Bigger farms, younger farmers

Until a few years ago, Travis Dagman was an architect in the Twin Cities. His wife, Dana, was a facilities manager there. Now they farm about 2,500 acres near Enderlin, N.D. By historical standards, that’s a large farm. By current standards, it’s not.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

ENDERLIN, N.D. — Until a few years ago, Travis Dagman was an architect in the Twin Cities. His wife, Dana, was a facilities manager there.

Now they farm about 2,500 acres near Enderlin, N.D. By historical standards, that’s a large farm. By current standards, it’s not.

The Dagmans say they want to build a business and raise their three children in a rural setting.

“What really drew me into this is the quality of life,” says Dana, who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb.

The Dagmans and their farm reflect two important trends in Upper Midwest agriculture.

Both in their early 30s, they are among a growing number of young farmers, a generational turning of the guard.

Though there aren’t hard numbers to document it, area farmers, on balance, almost certainly are younger today than they were in 2007, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture put the average age of North Dakota farmers at 56.5.

The Dagman operation also reflects that farms, on balance, keep getting bigger.

In 1992, there were about 15,400 farms with 500 to 2,000 acres in North Dakota. In 2007, the last year for which statewide data is available, the number had declined to about 10,200, according to the Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years.

In recent years, the number of farms with 2,000 to 4,999 acres — once considered relatively large — has declined, too. North Dakota had 5,276 farms of that size in 2007, down from 5,484 in 2002.

In contrast, the number of North Dakota farms with more than 5,000 acres rose from 552 in 1992 to 1,000 in 2002 and 1,214 in 2007.

Farm machinery keeps getting bigger and more complex, which favors bigger operations, says Andy Swenson, North Dakota State University Extension Service farm management specialist.

Also, strong farm profits in recent years encouraged large operators to buy or rent farmland at high prices, sometimes at the expense of smaller operators who had farmed the land, Swenson and others say.

Travis says the biggest operations have some advantages over medium-sized farms such as his.

Bigger operators “can afford some nicer equipment, if they want to. But I think we can do things efficiently enough so that we’re not at a huge disadvantage,” Travis says.

“We can update equipment and move into precision agriculture when we have to,” he says.

As for buying land, “We can’t be making any big splashes. We can’t go out and buy two quarters of land,” he says. “But we’re still looking for opportunities to grow.”

Regional trend

The trend toward bigger farms exists across the region.

According to USDA:

• In South Dakota, the number of farms with 2,000 to 4,999 acres fell from 3,674 in 2002 to 3,550 in 2007. The number of farms with 5,000 or more acres rose from 1,819 in 2002 to 1,942 in 2007.

• In Montana, the number of farms with 2,000 to 4,999 acres fell from 3,909 in 2002 to 3,632 in 2007. The number of farms with 5,000 or more acres rose from 3,207 in 2002 to 3,224 in 2007.

• In Minnesota, which has more and smaller farms than Montana and the Dakotas, the trend exists, too, but in different categories.

The number of Minnesota farms with 1,000 to 1,999 acres fell from 4,554 in 2002 to 4,264 in 2007. The number of farms with 2,000 to 4,999 acres rose from 1,715 in 2002 to 1,767 in 2007.

New numbers coming

The 2007 Census of Agriculture found that Montana farmers on average were 58.4 years old, with Minnesota farmers averaging 56.3, South Dakota farmers 55.7 and U.S. farmers overall 57.1. In contrast, the average age of all workers was 41 years, according to U.S. government figures.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture will be released later this year. It’s expected to show the average age of farmers across the region has declined since the 2007 census, in part because attractive crop prices encouraged more young adults to begin farming.

The new census also is expected to show that farms, on average, have continued to get bigger.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Swenson says.

Nor does he see any reason to think the trend will end.

“The only thing that, potentially, could stop it would be a change in government policy,” one that would favor smaller operations over big farms, he says.

“I’m not saying that would be good or bad. I’m just identifying it as something that could stop the trend,” he says.

Farms of relatively modest size can continue to succeed, provided they’re managed well and have access to land, Swenson says.

Virgil Dagman, Travis’ father, says small and medium-sized farms face “challenges” today. But he’s optimistic that his son and daughter-in-law will succeed.

Having access to land is a big plus for them, he says.

Travis and Dana rent some of the land in their operation. But much of it once was farmed by Virgil.

“Unless you have a connection to somebody with land, it’s almost impossible to get started in farming,” Travis says, echoing a point made by almost everyone in agriculture.

It also helps that Travis has off-farm income from his part-time job with an Enderlin tax preparer, Virgil says.

Off-farm income always is helpful for farm operations, particularly ones of modest size, Swenson says.

Travis and Dana also say they saved quite a bit of money from their pre-farming jobs, which provided a big boost when they entered farming.

Moving to the farm

Travis, 33, grew up on the family farm near Enderlin, N.D.

He attended North Dakota State University in Fargo, where he met Dana, 30, also a student there. They married two weeks after she graduated.

They moved to the Twin Cities and pursued their respective careers.

In 2008, however, Travis began coming back to work on the farm part time while continuing to work as an architect.

In 2011, he and his wife moved their family to Enderlin to become full-time farmers.

“It was hard to leave the job,” particularly since it offered health insurance, Travis says. “But we weren’t getting any younger, and we just decided it was time to make the move.”

He says it’s good he worked outside agriculture.

“I’m glad I had the chance to do something else. If I hadn’t (and gone straight into farming), I might always have wondered if I should have tried something else,” he says.

His father feels the same way.

“We’re so glad he came back. But it’s important to try different things, too,” Virgil says.

Travis, who graduated from high school in 1999, says he once considered studying ag economics, not architecture, in college.

But area agriculture struggled during much of the 1990s, and its future didn’t seem bright.

When Travis was in high school, “People would say, ‘You seem like a smart kid. Why would you want to go into farming? Go into something you can make some money at,’” he recalls.

Family helps out

Virgil, 65, is a full-time instructor with the North Dakota Farm Management Education program in Jamestown. He previously worked part time for the program in Enderlin.

Virgil had phased out of farming, renting out of most of his land, before Travis returned home.

Virgil and his wife, Sheryl, live in Jamestown but regularly come back to help on the family farm.

“It makes a huge difference,” Travis says of his parents’ help.

Dana, who grew up in Eden Prairie, a Minneapolis suburb, works full time on the family farm.

“I’m his employee,” she says, pointing to her husband.

Working in her original profession, facilities management, most likely would require commuting to Fargo, the state’s biggest city, roughly a one-hour trip each way.

Dana and Travis say quality of life was the main reason they moved back to North Dakota and spending two hours in the car every day would work against that.

Their children — Charles, 4; Levi, 2; and Grayson, born Nov. 29 — are in day care.

“We feel the kids get a more rounded experience at day care-preschool,” Dana says. “I enjoy being more involved on the farm, and Travis enjoys having the extra help. Having a quality day care program made all of the difference for us. It was a win-win decision.”

Now, Dana focuses on the farm’s bookwork, but does a lot of field work, too.

The move to North Dakota “was a little bit of a shock to my entire family and my friends. (They said), ‘You’re moving to a farm?’” she recalls.

Dana says her biggest adjustment, at least initially, was “realizing how much of a business farming is.”

Help from his wife and parents means the farm doesn’t need to hire a full-time employee, which would be a costly expense, Travis says.

“It’s going to take us another 10, 12 years until we get a bigger labor force,” he says with a smile, referring to when the couple’s sons reach their teens.

‘Patient growth’

The Dagmans raise wheat, corn and soybeans. Wheat generally is planted and harvested earlier than corn and beans, allowing the Dagmans to spread out their work load.

Cattle once were raised on the Dagman farm, although Virgil eventually got out of them.

Travis and Dana are open to the possibility of getting back into livestock, but have no immediate plans to do so. Calving would interfere with farm work in the spring.

Taking in some lean animals in the fall and feeding them over winter might be an option, however, particularly when the three boys are older.

Travis says he and Dana seek to “make the most efficient use of money.”

That means updating their farm equipment, but not buying new. Most of their equipment is at least 10 years old; the newest piece dates to 2006.

“You can still get work done with older combines and older tractors,” Travis says.

Building two new grain bins was a prudent investment, too, he says.

The Dagmans are looking for opportunities to expand their farm.

“Growth is always the objective. But it needs to be patient growth, finding the right opportunities,” he says.

Crop prices have plunged in recent months, and farm profitability almost certainly will decline, too, experts say.

Given that, Travis says, farmers, regardless of the size of their operation, “will need to pay close attention to their balance sheet and their expenses.”

He also thinks farms will continue to get bigger.

“But I think there will still be opportunities for people who want to have smaller farms,” he says.