GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Darin Stanley, 28, says he's had a hankering to farm since he was 12 and moved to a farm east of Conrad after his mother remarried.
"Farming is a pretty incredible way to make a living," he said. "I've always had a passion for the land and would enjoy being a steward of it while I helped feed the world."
He studied agriculture production and business in college, promoted a high school farm group, gave crop advice to farmers in southern Idaho and is a member of the Montana Farm Bureau's Young Farmer and Rancher Committee.
But Stanley, who's helped his stepfather and mother, Ken and Cyndi Johnson, farm for six years, has yet to farm on his own.
"I am still in the process of becoming a farmer," he said. "I don't own my own ground, like a lot of young potential farmers and ranchers, because of the steep costs of land and equipment and the limited availability of land."
"My stepfather is in his early 50s and not looking to retire," Stanley said. "I help my parents farm, but they make the decisions."
He did run his own sheep herd for three years and has worked several winters as a homebuilder, completing three houses last year.
"I'm providing for my own family and trying to save money to acquire some farm land," he said. "It also gives me something to do in the winter."
Matt Myers, 29, has long had similar aspirations and harvested his first crop last fall on land he owns near Big Sandy.
"I can't remember when I didn't want to farm," he said.
Myers grew up on a four-generation, 103-year-old farm west of Big Sandy and first drove truck during harvest as a third-grader. He studied ag systems management in college and always was the brother most eager to farm.
He moved back permanently in 2008 and has managed day-to-day operations on the family farm with his father, Larry, running a crop insurance office in Big Sandy.
Myers was able to lease and purchase some land last year through a USDA young farmer program. It gives existing farmers an incentive to transfer land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program to young farmers who put it in production.
"It was really neat to be responsible for my own land and see it do well," he said. "My first crop was pretty good since the land was coming out of CRP, and not necessarily primed for farming."
Myers also helps his brother Chris do construction work in the winter and does custom seeding, spraying and grain hauling and his wife, Julie, works in town.
"It all helps make ends meet," he said, adding it would have been difficult to get into farming without his family's land, equipment and knowledge.
"Startup land and equipment costs are increasing and commodity prices are more volatile than ever," he said.
The average age of principal Montana farmers and ranchers was nearly 58 in 2007, according to the agricultural census done every five years by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Data from the 2012 ag census is expected to be released sometime in February.
In the earlier census, 15 percent of Montana's principal farm and ranch operators were age 44 or younger, compared to 43 percent who were age 60 or older. About 42 percent were in the middle, age 45 to 59.
Farm and ranch groups are anxious about the graying of the agricultural landscape and trying to do their best to spur younger people to get into farming and ranching, said Sue Ann Streufert, young farmer and rancher coordinator for the Montana Farm Bureau.
"As an organization we are concerned about the increasing segment of aging farmers and ranchers and hope the next census will show the portion of young folks is holding steady if not starting to increase," she said. "Feeding the world's growing population cannot be accomplished if we cannot get the next generation to step up and take over these family farms and ranches."
More than 225 young folks registered for the Farm Bureau's Montana's Next Generation conference Jan. 24-25 in Shelby, nearly twice as many as the Farm Bureau expected, Streufert said.
"The turnout was really a welcome surprise," she said. "It shows young people are wanting go get informed about agriculture and get involved."
Streufert said the Farm Bureau and other Montana ag groups hold conferences and seminars and even social get-togethers to attract younger people to farming and ranching.
"We want to provide the tools to succeed for young farmers and ranchers already in agriculture, or those considering it," she said.
The group's Front Range County Farm Bureau set up the Shelby conference at which younger farmers and ranchers could get updates on a variety of topics, including current farm and ranch practices and technology, family estate planning and farm transition, getting loans and telling the ag story through social media to consumers interested in where there food comes from.
Not everybody has the opportunity to go into production agriculture, Streufert said, adding "it's extremely difficult to do without a family already involved in it."
"Startup costs to buy land or machinery can be overwhelming," she said. "It can cost up to $1 million or more to purchase a farm or ranch and buy equipment. Farm and ranch families can help ease their grown children into it, but that's why it's so important for them to do estate planning."
Stanley agreed, citing the "elevated land and equipment costs and high input costs for basics like fuel, fertilizer and seed."
"If I told a banker I wanted to get a $900 an acre loan to produce 30 bushels of wheat an acre, the banker would laugh at me," he said, adding that's why young farmers and would-be farmers need to learn to push the yield to a more profitable 50 bushels an acre through technology, chemical fallow and other means to help secure loans.
Myers said he rents some farm equipment from his father to use on his own land, in addition to managing his family's farm.
Streufert said younger adults joining their parents and grandparents on farms and ranches also have to learn how to communicate, share ideas and compromise on decision-making.
Stanley said he learned the value of pulse crops as a rotational crop that put nutrients back into the soil when he worked as a crop adviser in southern Idaho, but his parents had to decide for themselves to successfully plant peas last year.
Streufert said farm and ranch groups want to continue to make agriculture an attractive industry for young people.
"There are diverse opportunities besides being a farm or ranch producer," she said, such as working in agriculture related business, research, sales and agriculture banking. Success in any of them also could eventually get folks who wanted into farming and ranching.
"We welcome any way we can to keep young people in the industry," she said.
Streufert said rural development, including keeping, restoring or launching small community mainstays like medical care, schools, groceries and high-speed Internet can help make them more attractive to younger people.
Farming and ranching in remote communities also can seem pretty lonely for younger adults, she said, adding that's why farm and ranch groups have conferences and even social activities for young producers.
"In a lot of smaller places, there aren't many young producers nearby to talk with," Stanley said. "I enjoy conferences at which younger folks can talk over issues they're facing and possible solutions and realize we're not out there alone."
Myers, a member of Montana State University's Northern Agricultural Research Center Advisory Council, said he's learned that veteran neighboring farmers are always willing to make suggestions.
"I also have a lot of friends I grew up with who have come back to their family farms, which also helps," he said.
"I like the challenge of being my own boss and enjoy all aspects of farming," Myers said. "I enjoy working on equipment, devising a farm plan, buying the right chemicals and deciding when to market a crop."
"Of course, the greatest fun is planting a crop, caring for it and watching it grow," he said. "If I've been a good steward, and we get good moisture, the harvest results should be good."
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com