Friday On The Farm ~ 8/6/2021
Farm Transition to the Next Generation ~ Stephanie Shirk
Is farm ownership really in the plan for my future? To be honest, it’s been a big unknown despite many who know me assuming “yes” it would be.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Nebraska, my family went through the Midwest dairy crisis in the 80s and a time of significant farming struggles, then moving state-to-state, new school to new school, as my dad climbed the corporate ladder within the food manufacturing sector. Then raising a family alongside a career in the Pennsylvania agricultural industry for both myself and my husband Jim, was farm ownership really in the plan for our future?
Some might say “definitely” after Jim and I built a house adjacent to his parent’s farm to raise our children. But honestly, I don’t recall giving much thought to it. It wasn’t a yes or no. It wasn’t assumed a done deal just because his family has a farm. It just wasn’t thought about or talked about. To us, we just worked in the support sector of the ag industry. We weren’t “farmers”.
Even after 4+ years working for Penn State Extension, a modern educational organization dedicated to delivering science-based information to people, businesses, and communities as an outreach of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, farm ownership was not on my, or my husband Jim’s radar. Working alongside educators who provided guidance on farm business management best practices including specifics regarding farm transitions, we knew information was available if we ever got to that point. But it just wasn’t talked about.
Pennsylvania farms have a much different make-up than farms that span thousands of acres in the Midwest, not 65 acres like farms in Lancaster County. Although it can be said all farming is a lifestyle, that lifestyle is much more diverse for Pennsylvania farming than the corn and grain belt of the Midwest.
Lancaster County is known for its ag production and beautiful farmland as well as its picturesque back roads with horse-drawn carriages, dairy cows in the pasture and simpler lifestyles, or its long, narrow poultry barns supplying food manufacturers such as Tyson Foods, Sauder’s Eggs or Kreider Farms. None of which applied to Silver Valley Farm where corn, soybeans, wheat and hay were grown for nearby dairies and where the only animal agriculture included small-scale 4-H and FFA market goat, hog and steer projects for our three kids. Their projects reminded us of our connection to agriculture heritage and offered a connection to those who work to provide food for our world. It also taught them the value of dedication and hard work.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the disruption of the food supply chain caught the attention of consumers. Increasingly people want to know where their food is coming from and this desire skyrocketed in strength during spring 2020.
It also caught our attention! Jim’s mom has stated for years, “You get out of the farm what you put into it.” Then, Jim’s parents tested positive for Covid-19 in December. Luckily, their symptoms were mild. The questions for the future if they hadn’t been so lucky weren’t so clear anymore. What happens if Jim’s dad can’t put effort into the farm in the future? What then? Silver Valley Farm was recognized as a bicentennial farm in December 2003. Did Jim and I want that tradition to cease with the 9th generation?
All the sudden that answer was clear and the farm transition journey began in earnest. After eight months of discussions with family, trusted friends and numerous colleagues in the ag accounting, lending and legal sectors we are excited and nervous to begin our journey as official Lancaster County “farmers” with all the risk and hopefully reward that come with the occupation. The steep learning curve regarding farm taxes, business structure, insurance considerations, and most importantly heartfelt family conversations required a leap of faith and trust. The reality is we started this farm transition conversation at least 10 years later than advised.
The next generation of farming for us includes traditional crop farming, potentially growing our son Luke’s Black Angus freezer beef business and potentially agritourism. With the consumer demand to enjoy an experience in conjunction with local food and beverages, many ideas are swirling. We look forward to connecting with our agribusiness partners along with new and beginner farmer resources to determine business viability.
So is farm ownership for us? We’ll find out. Last week we purchased the farm from Jim’s parents. We believe the importance of family farms to our communities is too great for us not to take on the risk and responsibility to keep the vocation of farming alive for the 10th generation of Silver Valley Farm.
Stephanie Shirk is Penn State Extension’s Client Relationship Manager (CRM) for Area 9, which includes Berks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties. She has worked for over 15 years as a communications consultant and non-profit organization manager for a diverse range of organizations, including New Holland Agriculture, Fritz & Associates and The Pennsylvania FFA Foundation.