Planting seeds of tomorrow • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Planting seeds of tomorrow

Region’s agricultural sector invests in farming’s next generation

Mark Scarborough farming
Mark Scarborough, a third-generation corn, soybean and wheat farmer, and his 10-year-old
son plant corn on their La Porte County farm. (Provided by Mark Scarborough)

This isn’t your grandfather’s farm. A new generation of farmers is taking on the monumental task of cultivating the more than 80 percent of land in Indiana that is devoted to farms, forests and woodland.

From longtime farmers to those just getting started, farming in Northwest and North Central Indiana will continue to be an economic driver. Still, those leading the charge might need to adapt to changing times and circumstances.

While multi-generational family farming has sustained agriculture so far, many children of farmers are pursuing opportunities in other industries.

Today’s farmers are older and their futures are less certain than generations before. The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 57.5 years old — up from 56.3 the previous year, according to the USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture Impacts the Next Generations of Farmers.

All this raises more questions than answers regarding what’s in store for Indiana’s agribusiness landscape.

New farmers face many challenges such as access to land, capital and education. They also come from nonfarming backgrounds, and many hope to pursue more sustainable farming methods. Others are continuing the family tradition of farming.

Renee Wiatt sees this new dynamic in her work every day. As the family business management specialist at Purdue University Extension, she works on extension and applied research in family business management and collaborates with partners such as centers focused on agriculture and families.

“So, basically, what that means is I try to conduct research to find out why farmers are doing things the way they are, and then try to translate that into extension programming that we can share out in communities via programs, publications, webinars, all kinds of different ways we can share those resources,” she said.

She said much of her research and job responsibilities focus on small farm businesses.

“(I) especially look at that family component — and how the family interplays with the business and how that affects business decisions, how businesses are managed, and who’s involved in the business,” she said.

Lost opportunity

Development such as solar projects encroaching on farmland means farm acreage is shrinking, Wiatt said. Farmers who use technology get better yields from that shrinking acreage compared with those who don’t.

However, not all farmers are taking advantage of the technology available to them for a number of reasons.

“Maybe they don’t have the financial resources to adapt and change, or maybe they don’t have the manpower,” she said.

Another pressing issue is tenure. Wiatt’s colleagues surveyed farmers. Among the questions they asked was when they expect to retire.

“We had a good amount of people who said, ‘never,’ as you would expect,” she said. “We’ve heard, ‘I’m gonna die on the tractor’ — the people who said they were never going to retire. Of those (who shared that sentiment), the mean age of the group was 35 years. So it’s a little troubling. Even young farmers are thinking they’re never going to retire.”

And the older farmers, those in their 60s, 70s or 80s, might be hesitant to pass the reins to the younger generation. According to Wiatt, this lack of planning can be disastrous for aging farmers. That’s why the Purdue Extension succession planning team has a robust network of educators around the state, along with specialists on campus for that express purpose.

“We make sure that … people have time and space to make those decisions, and they’re not in a crisis situation,” she said.

Succession planning

Farmers Denny and Dan Holderby are facing that situation. The father and son grow corn and soybeans in Morocco, Indiana. Dan has been in a business relationship with his father since 1986. The elder Holderby, age 88, has been farming since 1962. Dan represents the third generation of Holderby farmers, and his grandfather also worked well into his 80s.

Denny Holderby
Denny Holderby has been farming since 1962 His son Dan has been working with him since 1986. Like other farmers, the 88-year-old plans to work as long as he can.

Though his father is committed to working until as long as it makes sense, Dan said they have a succession plan to lean on when the time comes. But Dan’s children don’t have an interest in following his footsteps. That means it’s up to him to write the next chapter of the family operation, at least for the time being.

“I have siblings, and neither one of them farm,” he said. “So, when Mom and Dad are gone, I will probably buy the land out from my brother and sister, which has kind of been in the works for a while. They know that’s what they want to do.”

Dan is looking to the future while reminiscing on how modern farming looks different from his father’s prime time. For one, it’s a capital-intensive endeavor.

“It’s hard to get a foot (in the door today),” he said. “When my dad started, a tractor cost $5,000. Now they cost $500,000. A new, big combine is a million dollars (today).”

Despite the technological changes, Dan said one thing’s consistent: his father’s passion for the vocation.

“This is year 62 for him,” he said. “There are not too many guys at that age doing what he’s doing. And it’s not up to me (to tell him to call it quits). He’s earned whatever he wants to do.”

A family affair

Farmer Mark Scarborough, too, is among those thinking ahead. The La Crosse man, who’s in his 40s, owns and operates a farm there. He said their two children help and are involved with agricultural programs in the community.

It’s fitting that Scarborough has all hands on deck, as the farm has deep familial roots.

“I farm my mother’s farm — it was called the pig farm,” he said. “I don’t know the year it was established. But it was sometime after the Depression.”

Scarborough said he took over the farm full time around 12 years ago after operating it part-time. Today, they grow row crops, which means corn, soybean, seed corn and wheat. In the past year, they’ve cultivated vegetable crops and have a small livestock operation.

After his last decade in the business, he said only recently has he been able to consider expansion. He attributes that to his leadership role in the La Porte County Farm Bureau, for instance, to get their name out there in the local ag community.

He also has the good fortune that his son, age 11, has expressed an interest in assuming leadership one day.

“My son … loves the day-to-day (aspects of) farming,” he said. “He wants to come back and farm, whether it’s (after) college or tech school or (working for) some other business. But it’s in his heart as of today to come back and farm.”

In the meantime, Scarborough said that increasingly stringent regulations are challenging for farmers like himself.

“In farming, there’s a lot more regulations every year,” he said. “(It doesn’t help that) we’re three generations removed from the farm. That means legislators might not understand what it takes for us to produce the crops in the way that we do, to be able to feed the world. So sometimes the struggle … lies in being able to talk to our legislators and let them know what we need in agriculture.”

Reaching youth

Nonprofits like FAITH CDC are filling the gap in cultivating the next generation of farmers. FAITH CDC owns FAITH Farms & Orchard. Their farms grow fruits and vegetables year-round. All forms of payment are accepted as well as Snap and WIC.

In December, the Gary-based organization announced that it received a $5,000 grant from Farm Aid for youth programming.

The organization said in a statement that it has plans to hire 100 youth next spring and summer through the Next Urban Ag Generation program.

Students from multiple schools in Gary can participate in the nationally recognized 12-week Junior Master Gardeners Program. This hands-on program supports youth in learning about agriculture, becoming involved in their community, developing an appreciation for the environment, understanding basic nutrition, and preparing fresh produce. This program is offered in collaboration with multiple urban farms in Gary.

Rethinking traditional farms

Jay Brockman
Jay Brockman

Further east, a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Civic Innovation is familiar with the plight of the modern farmer. Citing a report released by his office in the summer of 2023, “The Future of Agriculture in Northwest Indiana,” Director Jay Brockman said incubator farms might be one answer to diversifying the state’s agricultural base.

In Summer 2023, the Incubator Farms team at the Center for Civic Innovation through the University of Notre Dame was tasked with creating a map of St. Joseph County to indicate the potential of different areas for starting successful incubator farm programs in Northwest Indiana.

According to the Oregon State University Small Farms Program, “Farm Incubators are programs that help launch new agricultural businesses through a combination of production and business education and subsidized, centralized land tenure.”

According to Brockman, this model can offer a path forward for new and established farmers, though not easy by any means.

“(The findings of the report suggested that) families that have been in farming for generations are concerned that the younger generation is not solely going to carry the family tradition,” he said. “On the other hand, there are people that may come from families that aren’t traditionally in farming but are very interested in locally sourced food. And it’s not easy to get started.”

Dylan Sellars
Dylan Sellars

The challenges are tied to three factors, according to the report’s findings. Budding farmers need land on which to work, a market in which to sell their produce and guidance and mentorship from those more experienced.

Dylan Sellars, an undergraduate student at Notre Dame and one of the report’s authors, said corn, soybeans or wheat are the most common crops cultivated in Indiana. But that doesn’t mean planting them will result in a successful harvest, especially when first starting. Variables like soil conditions, crop rotations and others can make or break yield.

“There’s a lot that goes into farming,” he said. “And small-scale farmers or beginning farmers need access to people with that knowledge or other people who are learning alongside them with whom they could share information and kind of learn together. So without that, a lot of farmers experience so much hardship, especially in the first 10 years.”

Alicia Pellegrino
Alicia Pellegrino

Alicia Pellegrino, conservation director at the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, is a partner and supporter of the center’s work, alongside the NWI Food Council and the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition.

She said the interns and report authors represent diverse disciplines and approaches, which can direct more creative thinking and problem-solving toward the future of Indiana’s agricultural base.

“You need a whole-system approach,” she said. “You know, it’s not just the food system. And, I think, that that’s what’s exciting about something like this. The work touches on a lot of different aspects.”

Preserving the land’s value and natural state is another touchstone.

“We’re also interested in preserving natural lands,” she said. “Agriculture has to be a part of that. And development has to be a part of that. It’s neat to think about how that can work together.”

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Lauren Caggiano

    Fort Wayne-based writer Lauren Caggiano is a 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton. She has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing and digital media. She writes for several local (News-Sentinel, Business People, Glo), regional (The Municipal) and national publications (Midwest Living). She also writes for the Visit Fort Wayne blog, which was named Best Multi-Author Blog: Small Business by the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly and Keyflow Creative.


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