John Lase is 29 years old. He has a degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska and years of experience as a farm hand. He has energy and ambition, a deep passion for farming and a burning desire for a farm of his own – just about everything it takes to become a successful farmer – except the financial means to begin.

“Without a doubt, I love farming,” says Lase (pronounced leZAY). “It’s something I’m passionate about.” His goal is to have a self-supporting farm and call farming his business and career.

Lase is getting that chance, thanks to a forward-thinking, community-minded Iowa farmer who’s giving him a start.

Matt Peters has farmed for 35 years. He and his wife Ginnie grow corn and soybeans on 1,400 acres of fertile, central-Iowa cropland near Dawson. At 55, Peters is looking ahead to retirement. Neither of his two children wants to farm. And though he isn’t ready to quit yet, when the time comes, “I don’t want to see my farm split up. And I’d like to help somebody who really wants to farm and live in our community.” Somebody like John Lase and his wife Mariah.

In 2010, Peters rented Lase 400 acres of family land. In return, the younger man is helping Peters farm the remaining 1,000 acres, exchanging his labor for the use of Peters’ machinery. As time goes on, Lase hopes to rent more land from Peters, and perhaps buy his equipment.

The arrangement benefits both farmers.

Lase, the younger man, gets access to land and machinery – assets that are “virtually impossible for a beginner to acquire” without help, Peters says.

Lase also gets to pick Peters’ brain. “That can be quite beneficial for beginners,” says Wyatt Fraas, director of Nebraska’s Land Link program, which connects beginning and retiring farmers. “Learning about the farm, the land, local markets, the neighbors – all are things that can take years to figure out.”

Peters, the veteran farmer, gets experienced labor, which he desperately needed after health problems sidelined his dad. He also gets a potential successor.

Just as important, the local community benefits, says Peters, a longtime volunteer fireman and co-op board member. “We need to keep as many people here as we can.”

In fact, the prospect of bringing a young couple to Dawson helped Peters lease another 400 acres of land in a fiercely competitive rental market. “The landlady liked the idea of the beginning farmer program.”

Matt and Ginnie picked John and Mariahfrom about 300 hopefuls who had registered with Iowa State University’s FarmOn program, which pairs aspiring farmers with older farmers without heirs to carry on the business. Like the Peterses, half of Iowa farmers near retirement age have no family member ready to take over, according to the 2009 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.

“John has a strong background in agriculture that Matt was looking for,” says FarmOn Director Dave Baker, who has matched up 44 pairs of unrelated farmers in the last four years.

Lase, it seems, has been preparing for this opportunity almost since childhood. His family farmed near West Point, NE, until he was 12. When his dad quit farming, “that was pretty hard on me. By then, I already wanted to be a farmer.”

Lase worked for a neighboring farmer all through high school and college. At the University of Nebraska, he majored in mechanical systems agriculture. Summers, he worked on a custom wheat-harvesting crew out of Minnesota, and later managed a five-man crew.

After college, Lase joined a 14,000-acre corn and soybean operation near Missouri Valley, IA. In his spare time, he devised a novel tandem hitch and a tractor-mounted tool box, the JohnBox, which he now manufactures and sells through his website, www.Driven2Farm.com.

Although Lase was on the management track at the big Missouri Valley operation, what he really wanted to do was run his own farm. He had registered with FarmOn in 2005, and “Mariah and I had been putting money aside for when we got an opportunity.” Four years later, “I got a call from Matt Peters.”

After some preliminary discussions,the two couples sat down with Baker last winter to hammer out the details of a partnership. They agreed on a straight-up trade of labor for machinery use. But first, Baker asked each of them to calculate the dollar value of their contributions. “I wanted them to see it on paper,” Baker says, “so there wouldn’t be any doubts later.”

Peters and Lase allocate fuel and machinery expenses based on acreage, and each buys his own seed and fertilizer. They market independently and arrange their own financing.
Lase, who also farms a small parcel of his wife’s family’s land, had already established a relationship with a Missouri Valley lender. “When I told my banker about this opportunity with the Peterses, he was as excited as we were.”

So far, the partnership is going well, both farmers say. “Our work styles seem compatible,” Peters says. Timing of field operations hasn’t been an issue. During busy periods, they talk daily over breakfast or dinner.

“We’re on the same page” as far as production practices, Peters says. They no-till most of the beans into standing corn stalks and run a soil finisher ahead of the corn planter. This spring, they went 50-50 on the cost of a GreenStar guidance system. Lase had a lot of experience with auto-steer, which was helpful for Peters, who hadn’t used the technology before.

Lase and Peters have a long-term plan, but it’s flexible. “We’ve agreed to sit down and re-evaluate where we go from here at the end of the year,” Lase says. “We need time to work together.”

That’s smart, Nebraska’s Fraas says. In a farm matchup, conflicts over management or control are the main reasons that pairings fail, he says.

Programs such as Nebraska’s Land Link and Iowa’s FarmOn have at least 10 would-be farmers for every retiring farmer seeking a successor.

“This type of a transition “is much more difficult than just having a sale,” Fraas acknowledges.” Baker seconds that. He himself got his start in farming after serving in the Air Force, thanks to a Dickenson County grower who gave him a chance.

Match points
The matched pair:

  • Matt Peters, 55
  • John Lase, 29

Their arrangement:
  • Lase cash-rents 400 acres of Peters’ land.
  • Peters lets Lase use his machinery in exchange for Lase’s help farming 1,000 acres.
  • They buy their own inputs and allocate fuel and machinery expenses on the basis of acreage.
  • They market and arrange financing independently; as a beginning farmer, Lase qualifies for a reduced interest rate on his operating loan.
  • They have a written agreement.

Benefits for Lase, the beginning farmer:

  • Access to both land and machinery without a big up-front capital investment
  • Mentoring from an experienced farmer
  • Potential to rent more land in the future

Benefits for Peters, the veteran farmer:

  • Experienced labor and technology expertise
  • Manpower to expand
  • Tax credit for renting land to a beginning farmer
  • Potential successor
  • Potential tax advantages from a phased sale

Benefits for the community:

  • A new young family in the community
  • Continuation of a going business

Find information on beginning farmer programs and links to state programs at the International Farm Transition Network at http://www.farmtransition.org

The graying of American farms

Farming is a graying profession.

In 2007, the average age of U.S. farmers was 57, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. Today, fewer than 10% of farmers are under 35. Meanwhile, agricultural production continues to consolidate into bigger operations, whittling away at rural communities.

These trends drain rural areas of energy and talent, empty out schools and churches and sap main streets, straining the social fabric, says Dave Baker of Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center. Many states are trying to change that with programs to help young people get into farming.

“This is economic development at the most basic level,” Baker says, “keeping farm businesses intact, instead of having an auction.”

September 2010