The Lilienthal farm is tucked into a corner of eastern Iowa, about a half hour’s drive from the Mississippi River and Illinois border. It’s 400 acres of flat, fertile farmland. The farm has been in the family for about 150 years.
I pull up to a trim, white farmhouse. The Lilienthals are gracious, and hardy. So they agree to give me a quick tour of the farm, even though it’s seven degrees outside.
Dale Lilienthal is the family patriarch. He points to a shed.
"Dad built this machine shed," he says. "So he says, 'I’m going to build this so the doors are high enough and wide enough.' Now they’re not high enough or wide enough.”
That’s because the equipment Dale’s son uses today dwarfs his father’s. Bob Lilienthal is in the process of taking over the family farm. He rents the farmland and hundreds more acres around it. He had to build a shed the size of a warehouse for his machines.
Bob Lilienthal built an immense new hog barn, too. Bob raises more than a thousand pigs at a time, while his father used to have a couple hundred.
But with everything bigger and better, Bob Lilienthal struggles to match his father’s standard of living, even though he has side businesses.
I’ve come here to find out why. But first we have to get warm after our tour. We hustle into the cozy farmhouse kitchen. On the table – cookies and hot chocolate. This was going to be a good interview.
I get things going, with this question for the young farmers at the table: “Do you ever think to yourself – my goodness – you could just farm in the old days and now you have to have all these separate things?”
Bob Lilienthal’s business partner, Chad Rockow, pipes up.
“The bar has been raised,” he says.
Rockow says it costs more to farm now, even after you factor in inflation.
Everything is more expensive. Fertilizer, equipment. And the prices the Lilienthals get for their corn, soy beans and livestock haven’t kept up.
Rockow says their profit margins are thinner than Dale Lilienthal’s were. So they have to farm more land, raise more pigs, and do lots of other stuff.
“It’s more like what don’t we do," he says, laughing. "There might be eight or 10 different businesses.”
They even have a foam insulation business, totally unrelated to the farm. They do some contract farming, plowing other people’s fields. They raise pigs for the giant Cargill corporation (they’re paid to raise Cargill pigs in their barn).
But Bob Lilienthal says big corporations are one reason it’s hard to be a small farmer now.
“There’s all these big companies – Cargill, Tyson’s," he says. "They all own sows, they all own pigs. And they own the packing plant. So they’re very hard to compete against.”
There were no Cargills or Tyson’s when Bob’s father, Dale Lilienthal, was farming.
And here’s another thing. The price of farmland has skyrocketed. Dale Lilienthal remembers when he bought a chunk of land back in 1962. “When we first got married I bought ground for $400 an acre," he says. "Now that same ground is worth, what? $10-12,000."
The farm across from the Lilienthals sold for $12,000 an acre a few years ago.
All this stuff – the soaring land prices, rising costs, competition – it’s happening across the country.
“Part-time farming is pervasive and it appears to me to be permanent, and I think there’ll even be more reliance on off-farm income,” says Paul Lasley, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, who studies farm communities.
Lasley says 50 to 60 percent of farmers in the U.S. have some kind of second job – off the farm. Maybe they drive a school bus, or sell insulation like Bob Lilienthal.
Back at his kitchen table, Dale Lilienthal can only shake his head and marvel at the innovation of today’s farmers.
“You gotta be a lot sharper to be a farmer now than when I started," he says. "When I started, if you were strong and did things on time you were successful.” Now, he says, you have to be a good business person, too.
So why do they do it? Well, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. They feel the pull of the land, like previous generations did. They like to watch things grow, be their own boss. Even if that means working harder to stay in place.