Had he not been born into farming, the future would have been very different for Max Basehore.
“This was always home. It was what I was accustomed to,” the 25-year-old Hampden Township man said. “This is where I grew up.”
For generations, the Basehore family has made a living off a farm along Creekview Road near the present-day Route 581 bypass.
Their legacy is one where each father prepares a son to manage an enterprise that has changed over the decades from a general farm to a dairy operation to a niche produce market selling fruits and vegetables grown on location or purchased wholesale at auction.
“To all of my friends, this was the only farm,” Max Basehore said. He added there are children in the adjoining housing developments that have never seen a working farm up close.
That’s not the way it was for his great-grandfather Mark Basehore who worked the land as a tenant farmer back when the property was owned by the McCormick family.
Well-known and influential, the McCormick family once controlled the Home Farm outside Hogestown in Silver Spring Township that is now held in a private land trust.
The future of the Home Farm is the subject of a recent debate between advocates for historic preservation and the Cumberland Valley School District, which is looking to acquire the land by eminent domain.
Back in the day, the McCormick family employed a farm manager who went around to each property and specified what crops and livestock the tenant farmer should raise that year. In 1944, the McCormicks sold the Hampden Township farm to Mark Basehore, launching a family legacy that continues to this day.
Donald Basehore learned the ropes of farming from his father Mark, who retired in 1968. Tom Basehore took over the operation from Donald, who retired in 1996. Now Max Basehore is learning the ways and means of running a farm from his father Tom.
But with every generation, it is getting harder to find youths ready and willing to take on the challenge of a career in agriculture. The population is not what it used to be. Today, less than 2 percent of Americans are employed in farming and the average farmer is in his 50s.
There was a time in history when farm families were very large, but economic pressures have reduced the number of children born into those families. So each generation means there are fewer chances those farms will continue. Part of the problem is lack of interest brought on by cultural and societal changes.
Kent Strock is familiar with the obstacles involved in reversing the trend and bringing youths into farming. “You are asking the million dollar question,” he said.
Strock is president of the Cumberland County Farm Bureau and owns 20 acres of his family farm along the Williams Grove Road on the border between Upper Allen and Monroe townships. His family has been farming that ground since 1913.
Kent’s father, Clyde Strock, bought the farm from his grandfather G. Weir Strock in 1949. For almost 80 years, the family raised turkeys for direct marketing to local residents during the holiday season. That business ended in 2016 after Kent Strock converted an old bank barn into an event venue to support his catering enterprise.
Kent Strock has three children. “None of them have showed any interest in agriculture,” he said. He believes part of the reason is they know it is difficult life and hard to make money.
Preference and pressures
There has been a push on recent generations to head off to college and to shy away from career paths that some view as unattractive, such as farming and the trades.
“Yet we still need plumbers, masons, carpenters and technicians,” Strock said. “Sometimes they are pretty hard to find. College doesn’t prepare you for that kind of work.”
As a farmer, Strock knows that his career is not the most glamorous. “You are working with things that smell,” he said. “You are working with factors you can’t control.”
Preferences aside, it can be difficult for a young person interested in farming to break into the business if he or she does not have a direct connection to a farm family.
“If you’re not born into it, you’re really not going to be able to make it,” Max Basehore said. “Unless you are renting land and making more money than you are spending, you are never going to be able to turn and go upwards.”
One reason it is so difficult for young people is the high upfront costs involved with starting up a farm. It takes an enormous amount of capital not only to acquire land, but livestock and equipment.
Fact is, 86 percent of Pennsylvania farmers rely on some form of off-farm income to survive, Strock said. This could be a full-time or part-time job or a side business not necessarily tied to agriculture.
As farm bureau president, he noticed there are very few young men among the 500 farmers who are members of the county bureau. Many of those men have wives who are employed in full-time jobs that provide health care benefits, Strock said.
Stephanie Williams, administrator of the Cumberland County Farmland Preservation Program, can think of only case where a farmer hired on an employee who learned the ropes enough to take over a farm operation.
She said there are incentive programs at the state level that pair younger people with seasoned farmers in an arrangement similar to a master-apprenticeship.
One way to solve the aging out problem may be to relax local zoning regulations so that young farmers have more options to creatively use family farmland, Strock said. Creativity is important because niche marketing has emerged as one strategy farmers use to survive in the current economic climate.
In recent years, the Basehore family has built a maze inside their barn as a way to entertain children. They have also allowed families to interact with goats and sheep on the property.
Max Basehore sees a future where the family farm could operate as an agritainment venue, but there are restrictions in current zoning that limit their options.
“I don’t want to lose the roots of a seasonal farmers market,” Max Basehore said. “We have a good reputation with the people in this area so I feel it will get stronger as we break into these different avenues of development.”
Just as running a farm can be difficult, transitioning a farm when the older relative dies can be a great challenge, especially if there are one or more children who are not interested in farming.
This often results in farms being divided up and sold in portions to pay off those family members unwilling or unable to take on agriculture, Williams said.
There is no value in just giving a farm to a child, Tom Basehore said. “It was not handed to me. It’s not going to be handed to Max. That’s not how we work.”