Way of life

As fewer farmers work the land, the small town way of life fades

Marketplace Contributor Jul 10, 2017
Farmer Brandon Biesemeier stands on his herbicide sprayer on his family's land near Haxtun, Colorado. Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media and KUNC
Way of life

As fewer farmers work the land, the small town way of life fades

Marketplace Contributor Jul 10, 2017
Farmer Brandon Biesemeier stands on his herbicide sprayer on his family's land near Haxtun, Colorado. Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media and KUNC

A job isn’t always just a job – sometimes it is a way of life. This story is part of a series exploring what it means when jobs define several generations and are part of the very fabric of a community.

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere herbicide sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. This is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

He turns onto a country road, heading south to spray an herbicide on his cornfields, an early growing season task his genetically engineered crops demand to unlock their value. In the cab, a computer screen shows a little pixelated tractor moving across digital fields, logging his work.

“It turns everything blue that we’ve hit,” Biesemeier said. “I think sometimes you get so focused on this screen, you forget what even you’re doing.”

The sprayer is just one piece of expensive equipment on the Biesemeier family farm. A huge combine sits idle in a machine shed within eyeshot from the fields. A massive corn planter, used earlier this spring to get the crop in the ground, is parked outside.

While he moves across the field, a GPS system guides the sprayer. Biesemeier barely touches the steering wheel.

“It won’t be very long before these things are driving themselves and we’re not even out here,” he said.

Purchased over the past several years, these machines allow Biesemeier and his brother to farm nearly 7,000 acres in this rural pocket of northeastern Colorado, near the Nebraska border. Just a few decades ago, it would have been nearly impossible for a single family to adequately manage that much cropland. Now, Biesemeier said, his is a medium-size farm in this part of the plains.

“It takes a lot of acres to pay that combine off, or that corn planter off, or that sprayer off,” he said.

That means farms on the Great Plains and in many other parts of the country have had to grow in size and adopt new technologies to make ends meet. He can’t just farm 80 acres and make a living, he said.

“I wish you could. I think life would be a lot simpler, easier,” Biesemeier said. “And there’d be a lot more people out here if that was the case.”

About a hundred years ago, farming was the way a third of the country’s workers made their living. It used to be the most common occupation in America.

In 1910, 33 percent of Americans worked as either a farmer or farm laborer. That has changed dramatically over the last few decades, with farmers managing more land themselves and in turn, employing fewer people. Today, less than 2 percent of Americans work directly in agriculture.

That precipitous decline is due to a host of factors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the increase in farm productivity and the maturation of the American economy as the cause. Changes in technology allowed farms to start churning out more grain, milk and meat. Machines made the job less labor-intensive, meaning farms needed fewer people to get the job done, freeing up workers for other occupations. Other sectors grew and attracted more workers. 

As each new innovation — the gas-powered tractor, the mass-produced fertilizer, the GPS-driven sprayer — came to market, farmers who could afford it jumped on board. Those who could not were often unable to keep up.

“This is sort of a classic story in any competitive industry,” said Jim MacDonald, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. He said farmers are on a “technology treadmill,” a term the late agricultural economist Willard Cochrane coined.

As more farmers adopt new technology, they become more efficient and drive down prices on the crops they produce.

“That means the people who have not adopted find themselves with high costs and find it very difficult to make any money, and many of them wind up deciding to get out of the business,” MacDonald said.

All that has led to the trends that have shaped American agriculture: The average farm is growing larger, fewer farmers are doing the job and midsize farms are disappearing.

“The equipment is bigger, it takes more to farm and the cost is tremendous,” said Quentin Biesemeier, Brandon’s grandfather, who goes by “Bud.” The family farms near Haxtun, Colorado, in Phillips County. As of a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, its population is about 917 residents. That is 200 fewer people than when the town was at its peak in 1920. Back when Bud Biesemeier started farming in the late 1940s, fresh out of high school, Haxtun was bustling with activity.

“There was just more people,” he said. “We’d come to town Saturday night and the streets were lined with cars. They had a movie theater here.”

The town used to boast a bowling alley and a downtown lined with restaurants, too, he said. But not today. Many of those businesses have been knocked down or stand empty. Only one restaurant serves dinner in Haxtun now, but just one night a week. Residents looking for a night out any other day have to drive a half hour to nearby Sterling.

Haxtun’s grain elevator, run by CHS, a large farmer cooperative, sits along railroad tracks that bisect the community.

While many farm families don’t live in Haxtun, their dwindling numbers are certainly felt in the town’s most important institutions.

“We have fewer and fewer farm kids,” said Darcy Garretson, the superintendent of Haxtun’s public school district. “And it’s harder and harder to support the number of people on a family farm.”

“So what maybe would’ve taken 10 or 12 people to run, now takes one,” Garretson said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures confirm what the people in and around Haxtun are feeling. In 1987 in Phillips County, Colorado, 324 people listed farming as their primary occupation. By 2012, that number had dropped to 220. Thirty years ago, the value of farm equipment averaged out to just under $90,000 per farm. In 2012, that figure was more than $330,000 per farm. Existing farms have also grown less diverse, with the county’s midsize dairies and hog operations virtually vanishing in that 25-year span.

Haxtun’s story is hardly unique among towns across the Midwest and Great Plains. In the wake of the Great Recession, rural areas saw populations drop as people flocked to cities in search of work and education.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom in Haxtun. The town is quintessential Americana. In the neighborhoods, kids on summer vacation set up lemonade stands, and an ice cream truck plays music to attract customers. Front porches are adorned with American flags.

Parts of the town’s economy are thriving, despite the declining number of farmers. Those restaurants in downtown have been replaced by farm suppliers, agronomists and irrigation companies. Big farms need more services and agriculture specialists they can hire to help out.

“My grandfather was a farmer. My dad was a sharecropper and now I’m an agronomist. So I just farm vicariously through others,” said Dave Gibson as he stood at one end of a cornfield on the edge of town.

Hunting for corn rootworms, which feed on the crops and cut down on yields, Gibson pulled out a shovel to dig up a clod of dense soil. On any given day, Gibson does everything from soil sampling to mixing farm chemicals so farmers can focus on staying in the field.

Agronomist Dave Gibson comes from a line of Colorado farmers, the son of a sharecropper. He helps farmers in northeastern Colorado adjust to changing technology and rapidly shifting markets.

“Industries like mine — agronomics — those guys are going to be more in demand as time goes on, because there’s an education that has to happen and studying that has to happen that the farmer trying to get all his corn planted isn’t going to have time to do,” Gibson said.

Gibson serves as the president of the town’s school board. It’s tough to find people to serve not just on the school board, but in plenty of other community leadership positions, he said. Once you join one group, you’re asked to fill in elsewhere. Living in a small town often means wearing a few different hats, he said. That’s a fact made more apparent as the population in Haxtun has dropped over the years.

“When you talk about what’s going to keep our little town alive, our little town of Haxtun, it’s going to be kids coming home, coming back to farm,” Gibson said.

That is, if their families hold on and there is a farm to return to.

Luke Runyon is a reporter for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, and is based in Greeley, Colorado. 

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.