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story.lead_photo.caption Caleb Bleich, 19, is a cattle and crop farmer in Cole and Moniteau counties. Bleich represents about 8 percent of young farmers in Missouri.

Of the top states in the farming business, Missouri ranks second with 95,320 farmers, behind Texas, according to 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census Data. There are 2 million farms in the U.S. and 3.4 million producers, an increase of 6.9 percent from 2012.

The data shows a long-term increase in the average age of farmers.

Young farmers, age 35 years or younger, represent about 8 percent of farmers in the state.

Caleb Bleich, 19, has noticed he is part of a small demographic in Mid-Missouri. As a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he studies Agriculture Economics and plans to graduate in spring 2020.

At age 16, Bleich started out by renting about 200 acres in Cole County with his father's help. Three years later in 2019, he purchased his first 50 acres on the border of Moniteau and Cole counties.

In Missouri, the average age is 57.4 years old compared to the state average of 57.5. Missouri saw an increase of 1.3 percent from 2012-17.

Passionate about agriculture, Bleich was involved in FFA throughout his years at California High School. The flexible schedule of farming has helped him get through college with less stress, he said.

"It's allowed me in college to be able to focus on my studies," Bleich said. "I don't have to work a full-time job, I just come home for three or four hours in the evenings to feed my cattle. It's gone well so far."

By living at home, he saves more money than college students living on campus. Most of his profits from selling crops or cattle go back into the farm, he said.

Raised watching his father work commercial land, he said getting into farming in this climate has its obstacles. He's seen other young farmers; however, funding is one of the challenges, he said.

"It would be very challenging if you didn't have a relative," Bleich said. "The initial capital to get involved in farming is pretty substantial."

To eliminate some of the cost, Bleich and other new and beginning producers rent land. New and beginning producers — those with 10 years or less of experience — make up 27 percent of U.S. producers.

In Missouri, 30,713 principal producers — the person in charge, primarily responsible for the on-site operation of the farm — fell into that category.

Previously, USDA considered operators and producers equal. New definitions state each farm has one principal operator but may have more than one principal producer.

As a cattle and crop producer, Bleich said convincing landowners to take a risk on young or beginning producers is challenging. He rents acres to raise beef cattle and grows soybeans, corn, wheat and alfalfa.

Of young producers in Missouri, 5,198 fully own land. New and beginning producers own 17,120 farms.

"You have to really offer a competitive rental rate because a lot of the land is being leased by established farmers," Bleich said.

After undergrad and finishing law school, Bleich hopes to one day work as a full-time commercial farmer.

"I'd build my law firm up to a point where I can use that as a capital influx into my farm," Bleich said.

Moniteau County resident Larry Petree has been a farmer all his life. In 1970, he purchased 40 acres for close to $250 per acre.

"As much money as it takes in all this stuff now, it'd be pretty hard for a young man to start farming if he didn't have some older generation or inheritance to help," Petree said.

Tom Harris, Doug Strein and Bruce Logan are members of the Moniteau County Soil and Water Conservation Board. All producers for over 10 years, they said they notice the demographics of farmers changing.

Land is harder to come by, the cost is rising, and selling and growing are changing, they agreed.

Sami Jo Freeman, communications director at the Missouri Department of Agriculture, agrees the age of farmers is increasing — but not by "leaps and bounds."

The cost of land to produce crops can range from $6,000-$10,000 an acre. Coupled with student debt, which many college graduates accrue, Freeman said this can create additional struggles for new producers to get into the farming business.

A 2019 John Deere S780 combine starts at $520,202 and a used tractor around $80,000. In livestock, one cow costs about $15,000, the board agreed.

"I don't know how many acres it'd take to be able to support a family now even with everything paid for," Harris said. "Your input costs are so high — margins are so thin."

Many families work together to bale hay and harvest crops. In most cases, one farm cannot support multiple families.

With property in Osage, Miller and Morgan counties, Ryan Libbert, 40, bought his grandfather's farm when he graduated from college and continues making payments. Between three family farms, they work over 800 acres, which he considers a small operation.

After the 2012 drought, the cattle market declined, and the income hasn't been the same, Libbert said.

"In order to be a full-time farmer you have to have considerably more than we have, and it's just not feasible for young farmers to get into it," Libbert said.

Morgan County ranked No. 10 among Missouri counties with $199.4 million in value of sales in all commodities. For animals and products, Morgan County ranked No. 5 at $179.5 million and Moniteau County No. 9 at $113.8 million.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said it's hard to get started in any business, and research and capital are part of the process.

"That's true of every business — you don't just go out and buy a McDonald's franchise," Hurst said.

Farmers can be successful without new equipment and tools; however, adapting to changes will make the business better, he said.

"In a way, this stuff can make you a whole lot more productive compared to the cost," Hurst said about the cost of combines with GPS and other upgraded tools.

"I think over time, the adoption rate of those technologies is going to be really high."

New innovations also create ways to get back to agriculture through technology and biology opportunities, Freeman said. To her excitement, there is a trend of young producers getting into niche areas of farming like specialty crops.

Farmers with a small amount of land may harvest tree nuts, maple syrup or honey.

Officials have seen an increase in farmers markets, Freeman said. Four markets operate in Jefferson City during the summer. Markets have spread across Moniteau and Boone Counties.

Specialty crops also include fruits and vegetables, which can be sold individually, dried or turned into jams/jelly to add value, Freeman said.

Taos resident Janette Brenneke has sold crops at farmers markets for decades. People come to get cucumbers, beets and potatoes that are chemical-free.

Consumers appreciate the personal connection to farmers, she said.

Most producers agree another job is needed to make ends meet. Approximately 58 percent of farmers in the United States hold a primary occupation outside of farming.

Before he retired, Petree worked as a truck driver to supplement income.

Most producers say they are passionate about the business and wouldn't get rid of their farmland. Some plan for their children to inherit the land or to keep it within the family.

"I've never wanted to quit," Petree said. "To me, I would rather drive through my cattle on Sunday afternoon and see a newborn calf or see them eating grass than go to Lake of the Ozarks. That, to me, is way more entertaining."

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