For young farmers, it's a labor of love
Marla and Paul Critchlow Jr. with their children Ann Rose, 3 months; Ila, 4, and Preston, 2, on their farm in Harrisville, Butler County.
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Michael Moose was standing on rented land last week.
His finger was bleeding and he was waiting for his dad to get back with the hydraulic pump that he needed to fix a tractor that is older than he is.
At 34, he has a bachelor's degree in business administration and experience as a police officer but, Mr. Moose said, his personality just doesn't fit with anything but what he grew up doing -- farming. So he has struck out on his own, building a farm from the ground up.
So has Paul Critchlow Jr.
Mr. Critchlow, 31, is the namesake of his father, the last dairy farmer on Route 8 between Pittsburgh and Erie.
He tried working for other people in landscaping and in paving and concrete. He even had his own business for a while trimming hooves.
Then an opportunity came up. A farmer in Mercer Township, Butler County, near Mr. Critchlow's father's farm, was getting out of the dairy business. Under articles of agreement, Mr. Critchlow and his wife took over the farm. They have purchased the cows and the equipment, and have 10 years to buy the land.
While high tech start-ups generate buzz, there are thousands of people who, like Mr. Moose and Mr. Critchlow, are going into business for themselves in a more traditional way: with land and livestock.
It's a hard time to go into farming. And once someone gets in, it is nearly impossible to get out because, Mr. Critchlow explained, in the bad years when farmers would want to get out, there is no market for the equipment or livestock. But in the good years, no one wants to sell.
"It's not the most profitable industry around," said Charlene Berg, a loan officer for the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's a lifestyle choice. It's debt management."
Unlike rain, sun or grain prices, farmers can always count on debt to be there.
The government does offer loans to beginning farmers. A beginning farmer, Ms. Berg explained, is anyone with less than 10 years of actual farming experience. But the money is not available for people who are just starting. A farmer has to have a year of experience, either by running their farm for at least a year, sometimes risking their own capital, or by running someone else's farm.
Mr. Moose started small, renting land and hiring other farmers to use their equipment to do the work. With federal loans, he was able to purchase his own used equipment so he can now sow the seeds and harvest the land. That's good not just because he doesn't have to pay for labor, but also because he can do the job the way he likes it done.
"I'm kind of a perfectionist," he said.
He was also able to get to that field in Jackson Center before the blackbirds did. Last year he lost 60 percent of his crop to the blackbirds. This year he lost about 18 rows of corn to deer and a bear.
Mr. Critchlow, like just about every dairy farmer in the region, can quote the same statistic: Milk prices in 2009 were the same as they were in 1979. The price is set by the state's Milk Marketing Board based on a formula that most dairy farmers believe involves either darts or a Ouija board.
Mr. Critchlow, like most Pennsylvania dairy farmers, produces fluid milk -- a high grade of milk used for drinking, cream and butter. By comparison, herds in more Midwestern states, such as Wisconsin, tend to produce milk used for cheese.
While this year hasn't been great for milk prices, though they have come in over costs. The Critchlows are still paying the debt from running the farm below profitability in 2008 and 2009.
But while money is a factor -- Marla Critchlow, Paul Jr.'s wife, has taken over as the Mercer Township tax collector as a side job -- the decision to take over a farm was not an economic one for the family. It was a way to raise their children -- ages 4, 3 and 3 months -- who were all born after they started farming and to maintain a lifestyle that was not based on working for other people.
The first year they worked the farm, they lived in a trailer off site and had to make sure to be over at the farm to milk the 18 cows at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and to work the farm's 87 acres.
The next year, they moved to the farm house. "Life became a lot easier," Mrs. Critchlow said.
Days on the Critchlow farm start before 6 a.m., when the milking has to start, and end around 8:30 or 9 at night "on a good day," Mr. Critchlow said.
Their herd is up to 40 cows -- each female calf ads to it and Mr. Critchlow has acquired others so that he now has a mixed herd of Jerseys, Holsteins and Ayrshires. Eventually he would like to grow the farm to 150 cows but right now the barn comfortably holds about three dozen.
Meanwhile, 2010 has been a better year for corn farmers. Corn prices are up 32 percent this year over last year because of a drought that has hit Russia and Eastern Europe, a cold snap in China and floods in Canada that all damaged crops.
As he was waiting to finish chisel-plowing the field he was renting in Jackson Township, Mr. Moose reflected that a good year for corn prices meant a bad year for the "dairy guys."
Mr. Moose explains he is still a dairy farmer at heart. "I grew up on a dairy farm from the time I was a year old."
His father has since gotten out of the dairy business, but after a stint in police work, Mr. Moose was ready to get back to farming.
"You get into working with the soil and the animals and it sticks with you," he said. "It may not when you're 18, but it comes back to you."
Mr. Moose's 220 acres of rented farm land are on separate parcels in Jackson Center, Hermitage and West Middlesex, all in Mercer County. His equipment is parked at his grandfather's farm when he is not using it and when he needs to work on it.
In 2007, when he was working at a dairy farm, he bought the seeds he needed and hired farmers to plant and harvest for him.
Neither Mr. Moose nor Mr. Critchlow were able to qualify for bank loans without collateral to back up their equipment purchases.
Mr. Critchlow said he applied for loans and banks responded months later with rejection letters.
Then he filled out a stack of papers he described as about an inch and a half thick for the Farm Service Agency Loan.
Ms. Berg said banks don't understand farmers anymore. She said the Farm Service Agency is available with pools of money for any farmer who cannot meet a bank's criteria for lending.
Farming has seen a resurgence in this century: 40 years ago there were 74,000 farms covering 10.2 million acres of Pennsylvania, according to the US Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. By 1990 that had fallen to 59,000 farms on 8.1 million acres.
The latest survey in 2007 showed that while the acreage of farms continued to drop to 7.75 million, the number of farms has risen to 63,200.
"Since 2002, there's been an increase of about 5,000 farms," said Nicole Bucher, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "That's pretty awesome."
Additionally the size of the average Pennsylvania farm fell from 153 acres in 1990 to 123 in 2007.
The growing number of farmers in the state, Ms. Bucher said "are not necessarily people who are coming from a traditional farming background."
The Farm Service Agency allows for beginning farmers not to have the cash flow for fuel and equipment repairs. Farm ownership loans are available to buy land for a farm or more land to enlarge an existing farm, to build or improve farm buildings or to promote soil or water conservation.
In addition to seed and fertilizer, for which dealers will charge up to 18 percent interest, farm operating loans can be used to buy livestock, equipment, feed and chemicals. The money also can be used to refinance outstanding debt, buy crop insurance, pay for food and clothing and medical care or to hire additional labor for the farm.
The federal rates are tied to those set by the Federal Reserve and as of Nov. 1 the rate for an operating loan was 2 percent with the rate for a direct ownership loan at 4.125 percent.
Mr. Moose is also at the mercy of corn prices: He doesn't have a silo to store corn, so when he gets it out of the field, he has to sell it, which is generally when everyone else is selling and the price is the lowest.
Someday he would like his own silos.
"The goal," Mr. Moose said, "is to get the equipment paid for. Then get a little bit of ground."
First Published November 21, 2010 12:00 am