An Aging Breed: Nebraska’s farmers are getting older. Who will replace them?
As the combine gobbled soybean plants in a Buffalo County field north of Amherst on a summer-like October afternoon, beans went into its bin and dry pods, stems and leaves scattered out the back.
"I'm not farming to get rich,” said the combine’s driver, Justin Taubenheim. “I'm farming to maintain a legacy, a way of life. Faith, family and farming, in that order. The farm is kinda like the icing on the cake."
Taubenheim, 31, sports far fewer gray hairs than your normal Nebraska farmer.
The average age of a principal Nebraska farm or ranch operator: 56.4 years old, according to a 2017 United States Department of Agriculture census report. The rising worry: There won’t be a next generation to carry on family farms – even in an era where large machinery and new technologies have reduced the manpower needed to plant and harvest.
The challenge goes beyond farming. Who will fill vital jobs in transportation, processing, marketing, machinery? Who will teach at rural schools, provide health care and run Main Street businesses?
That worry makes it critical to get more younger farmers like Justin Taubenheim and his brother Tanner, 28, interested in living and working in rural Nebraska.
Younger Nebraska farmers and ranchers like the brothers who spoke to the Flatwater Free Press talked about their love of land and livestock. They stressed the importance of family ties – carrying on legacies often stretch back generations and now stretch forward as their own kids have the same childhood experiences they once enjoyed. But there are also barriers. Can the farming business provide income for an additional family? Can their spouse find an off-farm job with a regular paycheck and health insurance? Are there nearby schools, hospitals, grocery stores and services for young farm families like theirs?
The Taubenheim brothers, both married with young children, are the fourth generation involved in a family business best known for their purebred Gelbvieh beef cattle. They also have what many young farmers covet: Land. The brothers and their parents Mike and Renee have each owned half of Taubenheim Farms since Justin and Tanner Taubenheim, after earning animal science degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, bought their grandparents' half a few years ago.
"I have what others don't. I had a place to go," Justin said of returning to the family farm
Living near Kearney, where his wife Janelle works for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, is another plus, the young farmer said. "I'm within 20 minutes of being able to get anything I need.”
"I get to coach my son's flag football team and help with the (high school) wrestling team," he said. "I think there's value in raising a kid in a small class where they get individual attention and know everybody and their families."
It isn’t easy. Start-up costs are big hurdles for young producers, even those with strong family ties. There's equipment - $500,000 for a new combine and $100,000 or more for a new tractor - and high seed, feed, fertilizer and fuel bills.
Younger farmers and ranchers may have to rent crop and pasture land for years, until - or if - they inherit it.
"We just didn't have the deposit needed to start by owning our own cattle or farm ground," said Shelby Loeffelholz, 30, a beef producer who works with her Phelps County family. "We purchased a feed truck and loader, but that basically was our start up."
Most of Leoffholz’s time is spent operating her 8,000-head feedlot on rented land north of Bertrand. She also partners on a cow-calf herd with her parents and brother and helps with family farm crops. Loeffelholz, her husband Logan and their two young boys live on a property rented from her parents. Logan works at an implement dealership in Lexington.
"I don't think I would have done this without having family close by for support and to help with the kids," Loeffelholz said. She and Logan would like to own a feedlot someday and might be more involved in the family farm after her parents retire. Like Loeffelholz, many Nebraska farm kids now in their 20s and 30s sought higher education and worked other jobs before coming home.
Mark McHargue understands this journey. He returned to Central City in 1986 after a year in college to farm with his brother and marry his high school sweetheart, Judi, long before he became president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
He grows popcorn, feed corn and soybeans and custom-raises pigs. His sons Andrew, 32, and Jordan, 28, are home now, but own and manage their own businesses. "Neither of the boys really liked the hogs that much," McHargue said. Instead, they turned their own interests into their careers.
Andrew worked seven years for a neighbor and then bought that farm. Jordan runs a company he and his dad co-own, a construction business that has built more than 70 houses in the Aurora-Central City area in the past six years.
All three men have created rural Nebraska jobs: A combined 18 full-time construction and farm jobs, and several other part-time jobs, by McHargue’s count. He said other economic benefits include more work for area construction subcontractors.
Young farmers don’t always return immediately. Alec Ibach's journey back to his family's Sumner farm and ranch took eight years: Four to complete a UNL degree; four more working at Farm Credit Services of America.
He and a co-worker, Nate Hartman, eventually launched Apache Ag, a company that sells seed and other crop products from a new office and warehouse near Miller. Alec's parents Greg, a longtime state ag director, and Teresa, a new state senator, wanted their triplets to work away from home before deciding whether to return. "They wanted us to do something else, to see other things and have other experiences," Alec said.
Alec, his wife Meredith and their 2-year-old daughter now live in Kearney where Omaha native Meredith is a kindergarten teacher.
The timing of Alec's return to the family business - corn, soybeans, and calves from a Black Angus-based herd - fit a need after Greg Ibach was appointed in fall 2017 as a USDA undersecretary in Washington, D.C.
Greg has now returned to managing his family’s beef production since he left government in 2021 and took a role at UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Alec still focuses on the farm's commodity marketing, but spends most of his time with Apache Ag customers.
The path back to their family farm northeast of Lexington is less certain for the Batie sisters, Juliana Loudon, 32, and Cicely Wardyn, 29, who already have ag-related careers.
"Julie and I have said we don't want to just give up the farm," said Wardyn, so they're doing succession planning with parents Don and Barb Batie.
Loudon, the ag teacher and FFA adviser at Overton, lives with her husband Doug and 2-year-old son on a small acreage between Elm Creek and Overton. She previously taught at Wood River and in North Dakota when Doug was completing civil engineer certification requirements.
Starting a family influenced the decision to return to Dawson County. "It was being home," Loudon said. "That's the way I was raised and I want my kid to have that, too."
She helps farm on weekends and summers now, but wants to run the business full-time after her parents retire. Her sister's family farm role is more complicated.
Wardyn was a legislative aide to Sen. Deb Fischer before returning to Lincoln to get a UNL graduate degree. She was hired in 2021 as assistant state ag director, and is now an agriculture and natural resources specialist in Gov. Jim Pillen’s Policy Research Office.
Wardyn said it will take time to figure out the details of her new role. She’s similarly uncertain about her family farm future. “If Julie takes over the farm full time, what is my role going to be? I don’t know, yet,” she said.
Other young Nebraskans who aren’t tied to a family farm or ranch need other incentives to live and work in rural communities. They need child care, Wardyn said, places to gather, ways to get involved in the community.
Loudon said the many "unsung jobs" available must be better promoted at high schools and in hometowns.
"I have a list of 300-plus careers directly related to agriculture and only two are farming and ranching," said Matt Kreifels, a UNL associate professor of agriculture leadership, education and communication.
There are now 209 different ag education and FFA programs in Nebraska, nearly double the number that existed a dozen years ago. Kreifels said most new programs started in 2010 and 2011 after it became clear that the strong ag economy had helped Nebraska fare better than most states during the Great Recession.
Nebraska has beginning farmer programs and incentives to help link young people with older landowners who don't have children returning to family farmers.
"Keeping farming in the family is important," the Farm Bureau's McHargue said, "but you have to have someone to farm it ... not everyone is able to or wants to do that."
How to get future generations to live and work in rural areas is "the million-dollar question, not only in rural Nebraska, but also in rural America," he said.
One vital need is broadband service required for ag production and marketing technologies, websites to promote businesses and links to work remotely. Loudon described dependable Internet service as "the great equalizer" for rural Nebraska.
Many ag producers also need their spouse's full-time job for health insurance.
Loeffelholz, for example, says her family depends on the health insurance her husband gets from his company.
Loudon reminds her Overton students that many good jobs don't require a four-year degree or the related debt. The best match might be a trade school or on-the-job training.
The McHargue sons graduated from community college. Now they're both running multi-million dollar businesses, Mark McHargue said.
Although Justin Taubenheim worries about rural Nebraska's shrinking population, especially in isolated areas, he knows a career in agriculture or any industry "is not something you can force on somebody."
"The ones who do come back are the ones who are successful, who will grow, expand and be more productive," Alec Ibach said. "Farming is not a job. It's a lifestyle.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.