ZUMBROTA — J.D. Haas has asked older farmers what they want, and the answer seems to be unanimous.
"So many times, I’ve said, 'What’s your goal?'" Haas said. The reply, "They say, 'My goal is to die on the farm.'"
But making that goal happen comes with hurdles, Haas said. Sometimes those hurdles become barriers.
A retiring wave
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 59.13 percent of farmers in Minnesota were aged 55 or older. That's up from 38.62 percent in 2002 and 33.71 percent just 20 years before that.
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said those numbers have some roots that go back to the 1980s farm crisis, a time when many young people were discouraged from getting into farming, and forced many others who had started farming to get out of the business.
“We sort of lost a generation,” Paap said.
With farms losing money in the 1980s, parents encouraged their children to take up other occupations, which created a large cohort of farmers that keeps getting older as the industry looks for the next generation to fill the gaps, Paap said.
The census data backs him up. Farmers ages 35-54 represent less than 40 percent of all farm producers in Minnesota since at least 1982, and the average age of farmers in Minnesota has gone from 47.2 years old in 1982 to 56.5 in 2017.
The continued aging is helped somewhat by innovations in farm automation that help farmers keep working longer, but eventually the work gets too hard, and getting up in that tractor to plant or harvest gets more difficult each year, Paap said.
"The question is, when do your fathers retire?" Paap asked, rhetorically. "I don't think they ever do."
And due to tax laws, passing on the farm within a family can be a financial nightmare with so much of that value going to capital gains, he said.
"It is going to be a question where you look at most of the land in Minnesota is owned by widows," Paap said.
The survey will say
Those barriers – generational land transfer, getting parents to retire, getting younger farmers into the business – are all part of what Haas said he's talking about with older farmers as he works on his survey. But beyond the land and calling it quits, there are other issues farmers face when aging in place.
One problem, Haas said, is finding help when mobility or mental capacity becomes diminished. As a couple grows old together, generally one spouse takes care of the other. But that caretaker needs respite and needs assistance in caring for the ailing spouse from time to time, such as when the caretaker spouse goes grocery shopping or if he or she simply needs a break.
In a city like Rochester, agencies exist to provide that kind of respite relief. But finding volunteers to drive 10 miles outside a small town to a farm down three different gravel roads is another matter.
"It is easier to find a community to help in Rochester," Haas said. "In Goodhue County, most of the population is in Red Wing, Cannon Falls or Zumbrota, so you need to find those few volunteers who can help those in need outside the cities."
Carla Pearson, older adult services coordinator for Three Rivers Community Action, said the agency's Meals on Wheels service is limited to the cities within Goodhue and Wabasha counties because that's where the volunteers are found.
"We mainly stay within city limits because of our volunteer base," Pearson said. "They are using their lunch hour to deliver."
If the agency wanted to try delivering services to rural residents, they'd not only need to find volunteers but keep those volunteers and substitutes, or if the service fell away, clients who relied on the services would be left out in the cold.
"We just need volunteers who are going to do it, and that is the barrier," she said.
Back on the farm
David Pahl grew up on a farm, and hoped to hand off that farm to one of his children someday.
"The farm had been in the family since 1933," Pahl said. "My dad bought it from his dad."
He started farming at the age of 12, and two years later owned a tractor, his own animals, and was renting land.
But the farm crisis put Pahl and his wife, Sandy, out of the farming business in 1985 when David was 44 years old. Instead, he moved into Zumbrota and began a non-agriculture job, driving a truck and eventually working as a custodian at Mayo Clinic.
But farming and country living was something that never left his blood, so when their daughter, Amy, bought a 23-acre hobby farm several years ago near Hampton, Minn., and renovated a large apartment above the garage on the property, the Pahls decided to move into the space their daughter had designed for the eventual survivor of the two.
"When you're raised in the country like I was, you want to be out here," Pahl said.
The apartment, where they've lived since 2015, comes complete with a chairlift on the stairs, although Sandy Pahl said they only use it to haul groceries up the stairs now. But someday, it might be necessary to get up and down the stairs themselves.
Asking important questions
Haas said his church, the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Zumbrota, has its fair share of aging farmers among its congregants, which is part of how he got interested in what happens to farmers when they age in place on the farm. A $10,000 grant from the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center and the Center for Aging and Innovation funded the Healthy Aging on the Farm Project, which the church is partnering on with the Normandale Center for Healing and Wholeness.
The goal is to talk to at least 30 farmers older than 60 by June, Haas said. Sixty famers would be better. Haas has reached out to other churches in Goodhue County to see if those pastors can get some of their flock to take the survey that learn about what barriers might exist to aging on the farm.
Haas said finding solutions to those barriers is above his paygrade. But getting farmers to talk about them can help those social service agencies develop solutions.
"My paygrade is to talk to as many farmers as I can, listen to them, find out what the great things are about living on a farm, what are some of the issues they have of living on the farm, and if they want to continue living on the farm, what are some of the obstacles for them to do that," Haas said. "And then I’ll pass that information to other people.”
'I'm going to be right here in my chair'
Even at age 87, Bill Budensiek plans to keep farming, "As long as I can still get on the tractor."
But, he acknowledges, the day he can't farm anymore is getting closer each year.
"We sold some land off last year, 80 acres," he said. "We're down to 190 acres, only 50 (acres) of that is tillable. The rest is pasture or woods."
These days, Budensiek's farming consists mainly of planting and harvesting hay on a small plot on his farm north of Zumbrota. It's a far cry from the days when he planted corn and soybeans, raised peas and sweet corn for canning at Lakeside Foods in Plainview and raised beef cows on some of his permanent pasture.
"I don’t have any cattle anymore," Budensiek said. "About three or four years ago, I ended up with some health problems, ended up in the hospital." The experience taught him that caring for his animals was tied to his health, something he couldn't always count on these days. "No one would be able to take care of them in the winter."
Like many farmers, Budensiek got into the job because his parents farmed. His dad farmed up until his death in a tractor accident at age 65. At that point, his mother moved into Zumbrota, and Budensiek took over the family farm business.
With none of his own children farming nearby, Budensiek said he and his wife, Socorro, still plan to leave the farm only once they've died.
Vicky and Emery Fick plan to stay in their home south of Lake City no matter the obstacles.
"Augie Schleicher will haul me out of here," said Vicky Fick, referring to the longtime funeral home owner in Lake City. "Never ever, ever have I wanted to live in town."
Vicky grew up a few miles away from the farm where she now lives with her husband. Emery bought the place from his parents, who bought the land in 1944, though Emery's parents did retire to Lake City.
Today, the couple lives alone on their farm but are surrounded by family, including a daughter and son-in-law who farm a couple of miles down the road. That, both said, will help them stay on the farm, but Vicky said she knows people who have had to move off their farms when age, mobility and mental acuity became issues.
Emery suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure, but an easy chair with a supply of oxygen parked next to it will be his perch once he makes it through one more year of farming, he said.
"I'm going to be right here in my chair," he said. "I'm 85, so it's about time to quit."
The desire to stay on the farm comes from years of working and raising a family on that land, Emery said.
"We worked hard here," he said. "The whole family worked hard to get where we are."
Planning for aging
For the Ficks, while their home has two stories, they've set it up so they can live their lives on the main level. Laundry, the kitchen, everything they need is on the ground floor that requires, at most, a small step to enter. The couple put in a safe-step bathtub that will help them as their ability to move is curtailed.
Emery already faces mobility hurdles. The couple helps raise a few heifers at their old feed barn for their daughter and son-in-law down the road. It's located down a small hill, and Emery said he can walk down to it, but walking back up can be a problem.
Budensiek changed out his bathtub as well. He's had both knees plus a hip replaced, and his wife "isn't so good on her feet" anymore, either.
"The old tub, getting in and out of that was suicide," Budensiek said. "We only go into the basement for the freezers. Otherwise, everything we do is on one level."
Developing a plan for home
Haas said fixing issues that can render a home unlivable for seniors is one of many steps to allowing older farmers to remain on the farm.
Haas and his church have partnered with the with the Normandale Center for Healing and Wholeness in St. Paul to conduct a survey on Healthy Aging on the Farm using a $10,000 grant funded by the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center and the Center for Aging and Innovation.
"Farmers want to stay on the farm," Haas said. So far, he's conducted a handful of surveys but would like 30 at least and 60 completed surveys if he can get them. "We're asking what will keep you aging on the farm if you want to age on the farm, and what can we do to overcome those obstacles."
Mobility is a big issue, Haas said, both within the home and leaving the home for errands such as grocery shopping and medical appointments. There are county services, but getting volunteers out into the country to help folks can be difficult sometimes.
Exacerbating the problem is that farmers have spent their lives in physical labor, and many aging farmers are dealing with old injuries that limit their movement as they age, he said.
"Running a farm is rarely a one-person operation. Even in retirement, there's a lot for these folks to do on the farm."
- Pastor J.D. Haas
Another issue is care. As a couple ages, one tends to care for the other who might be deteriorating more quickly. Providing respite for the caregiver of a couple is an issue that's come up. And when just one spouse is left, having someone check on that person is a service that is needed.
Haas said finding those services in a city such as Rochester or Red Wing is easier than finding someone who will volunteer to look in on an aging farmer who lives five miles outside of Zumbrota.
As for that caregiver – whether talking about a spouse or someone from outside the home checking up on an aging farmer – that work can be difficult and sometimes feel thankless.
"There’s a lot of burn out when it comes to respite care," Haas said.
And the problem isn't getting better anytime soon. The average age of a farmer in Minnesota has increased nearly 10 years from 1982 to 2017. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, nearly 60 percent of Minnesota's farmers are 55 or older.
"Running a farm is rarely a one-person operation," Haas said. "Even in retirement, there's a lot for these folks to do on the farm."
The family lifeline
Budensiek said there's no way he and his wife would be able to remain on their farm much longer if their daughter didn't live right up the road.
"She comes down here every day to check on us," Budensiek said. "If we got appointments, she sees we get there."
In the meantime, Budensiek said his wife still does most of the cooking, but he helps out with the laundry. He's also in charge of making sure she takes her diabetes medication since she's starting to get a little forgetful.
Vicky Fick said that despite her determination to stay on the farm, the task would be harder without her daughter, Kendra, nearby.
"We wouldn't be able to be here if it wasn't for her," Vicky said. "She's here all the time making sure things are OK."