The Changing of the Guard
Technology’s Impact on the Future of Generational Farm Transfers
This case study is the first in a series of installments in Sod Solutions publications that examines the trend of generational farm transfers, along with the challenges, opportunities and outcomes associated with this change.
It is a widely recognized trend that the average age of individual farm owners in the United States is 58 years. Industry and local conversations focus on these concerns: Who will replace the most experienced farmers when they step down in the next decade or two? Are new or younger owners prepared for the changes ahead?
The answers are varied. In some cases, farmers’ children grew up in farming life, and find it natural from a young age to transition from helper to owner. In other cases, young people prefer to move to suburbs or cities to find careers after seeing first-hand that the work of agriculture is not necessarily lucrative or appealing. This uncertainty creates both challenges and opportunities for those who want to see their children or grandchildren continue the family business.
This article focuses on this trend of farms being handed down to the next generation and how technological changes will shape these business’ futures. We have noticed an increasing number of young farmers working in their parents’ business, and we believe that the transition is happening now.
We talked to two Sod Solutions licensed producers about how they got their start in the farming industry and about the prospects for their children to continue their work. Both cited technology as having huge impacts on their businesses, as well as how it will shape their futures.
Gary Youmans owns Green Acres in Furman, SC with his brother, Alex. Gary started farming in 1986 when he graduated from Clemson University and joined his brother in the business, several years after Alex started farming fulltime. The Youmans family has been farming since the 1800s with row crops, adding aquaculture and a fertilizer dealership before beginning turf farming in 2000.
Gary says that technological evolutions have been essential to Green Acres’ progress. He is clear that their openness to change has been essential to staying competitive.
“You have to adopt and embrace these changes,” said Gary on a recent phone call. ‘We have adopted new technologies over time, rather than all at once, but willingness to change has been key in our growth.” Green Acres was one of the first sod farms to trial and adopt Turf LogisticsTM, the modular software technology developed by Sod Solutions that helps farms streamline and integrate order management, truck routing and customer service.
Gary also cited the change from manual labor to automation as one of the biggest influencers. He also said, “We will have to become more efficient in every way, from office activities to field production and deliveries. We will have to continue to adapt, and keep change affordable at every step.” Gary predicts that the equipment technical revolution “is just starting.”
The next generation will follow in Gary’s and Alex’s footsteps. Gary’s son, nephew and future son-in-law are all involved in Green Acres in different roles.
Justin Payne, owner of Payne Sod Farm in Manteno, IL grew up in the farming life. The farm started in 1975 with turfgrass. Justin began farming with his father in 2000. They are also a Progressive Mower dealer for Midwest sod farms.
“The AutoStacker has impacted our business more than just about anything else,” Justin said. It’s changed productivity, uniformity, and the labor force. I am not sure where we’d be without it.”
His farm operates with two auto stacks and two big roll machines. “Technology has changed a lot,” Justin says.
“Most of the farms in our area that did not automate have gotten out (of the business). Across the board, equipment automation, like GPS guided mowers, sprayers and even drones have drastically changed our industry.”
Justin predicts that as turfgrass becomes more of a commodity that larger farms will take advantage of technological—and other efficiencies, driving big farms to become more numerous and influential.
At the same time Justin said, “To stay relevant and keep ahead of our competition we are doing more specialty grasses like HGT and RTF. Advertising used to be done with paper or phonebook. Now it’s done through our website, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. We listen to our customers’ needs more than anything.” And he added, “If we aren’t moving forward, then we are falling behind.”
Unlike Gary Youmans, Justin does not expect his descendants to eventually take over the business. “They see how hard the work is and how it is becoming more and more difficult for farming to remain lucrative under all of the newer government laws and regulations, plus the effort it takes to stay competitive.” He has no regrets that his children plan to pursue other careers.
Justin sees that water will be a big issue in the future, as well as chemicals, emissions and soils, as all those things become more scrutinized and regulated. We will cover those trends in the next installment of ‘The Changing of the Guard.’
We believe that technology will help expedite the transition of agricultural management to the next generation. Not only is technology familiar to younger farmers, it is a familiar tool that they grew up with and will help them transition to that life.