BAZINE — As he squinted against the hot summer sun, Bob Hagelgantz kept a watchful eye on the two combines and grain cart harvesting wheat in one of the family’s fields. The summer wheat harvest has been a tradition as long as he can remember.
“I started driving a tractor when I was 8 or 9 years old,” he said.
His father warned him it took “guts of steel” to be a farmer, but that didn’t stop Bob and his wife, Loa, from taking over the family farm as newlyweds. That was several decades ago, and at age 75, he still takes an active role in harvesting crops.
“I tell everybody I’ll quit when I turn 65,” Bob said with a chuckle. “I passed that 10 years ago.”
Of the five people helping in the wheat fields earlier this week, only two were younger than 70. One of the couple's sons, Chris, owns nearby property and actively is involved in farming and ranching on the family land.
But like many other Midwest farm families, not all of their children had an interest in working the land. And it’s getting harder to find help, Loa said.
“Everybody has trouble getting help,” she said. “There’s not very many kids that stay.”
But she doesn’t blame them one bit.
“There’s no future, really, in it. If they don’t inherit (the farm), there’s no way you can come out and start farming, because the expenses are unbelievable to get started,” she said.
The situation isn’t unique to the Ness County family; most of their neighbors are facing similar difficulties, she said.
The 2012 Census confirmed America’s agricultural workforce is getting older. During the last 30 years, the average age of U.S. farmers has increased by nearly eight years, with the average age now at least 58.
Part of the problem can be attributed to low grain prices. As the Hagelgantz family worked in the field Tuesday, wheat prices hovered at approximately $3.80 a bushel. The value has dipped lower than that several times in the last few years.
The crop yields were strong, between 50 and 70 bushels an acre, but still a bit less than expected, Loa said. Many area farmers believed a freak late-spring frost took a toll on their fields.
Rain also played a role in this year’s crop, from delaying wheat cutting to causing the grain to shrivel, which can adversely affect the crop’s test weight, Bob said.
“We were at the grocery store the other day, and Bob looked at a box of Wheat Chex,” Loa said. “It was $3-something for that box. It was the same price as a full bushel of wheat, for a box of Wheat Chex.”
When asked if the aging workforce makes them worry about the future of farming and the role it plays in rural Kansas, Bob’s response is simple.
“If people want to eat, we’ve got to farm,” he said.
While the family said they weren’t sure they would financially “break even” with this year’s crop after the costs of equipment and supplies are figured in, there have been many benefits to rural living, Loa said.
It was a great place to raise their family, she said, and their children learned the value of hard work and responsibility at a young age. A Colorado native, Loa said she felt like she’d moved to “a desert” when she first arrived at the family farm.
“Some people might drive through here and they think it’s terrible. But when the milo is coming up and the wheat is blowing, there’s a beauty in everything,” she said.
And there’s always hope.
Hope that agriculture prices will rebound.
Hope that the next year’s harvest will be even more bountiful.
“The farmers always have that (attitude), ‘OK, it’s going to get better.’ That’s just a farm thing,” Loa said. “If you didn’t, you wouldn’t survive.”