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Rosmann: Aging farmers are often slow to retire

There was a time while hunting pheasants when I could down a rising rooster within seconds after its ascent. I didn’t remind my fellow hunters of my fortunate shot – though I suspect they were impressed when the winging bird collapsed before it flew 30 feet.

The pheasant attempting escape was tumbling downward in a cascade of feathers while the other hunters were still raising their guns.

Quite often I could knock down a cackling pheasant some 50 yards away that had arisen well behind or ahead of me. Now, I can hardly walk a quarter mile through prairie-grass pheasant cover without stopping on decrepit knees, and I have to take breaks to catch my breath because of medications that slow my heart rate.

My son, Jon, and his hunter friends allow me to rest while Jon’s hunting dog slurps water. Usually I choose to post at the end of a likely-looking swatch of cover that might hold pheasants, waiting for them to drive any remaining birds toward me.

Jon shoots and kills most of the pheasants, ducks and geese before I get off a shot. He is kind, giving me plenty of time to dispatch a big Canada goose before he finishes the job, and then says, “Nice shot, Dad.”

There also was a time when I could load and unload wagons of hay bales all day long. The record a young hired hand and I hold is baling and storing 1,700 bales ourselves between the morning dew lift, and its return, as sunlight waned.

We all have to come to terms with aging, whether we are hunters or farmers. I don’t like it.

Most of us know exceptional doctors, teachers, shopkeepers and others who kept working into their 80s and 90s, but none of us can escape time.

I take pleasure in the words of deceased neuropsychologist, Dr. Arthur Benton, who said at 94 years of age during his last keynote address, “Getting old sucks, but one good thing about getting old is that we know what to pay attention to. The information is all ‘up there,’ if we can retrieve it. We choose what is important to respond to.”

Farmers are among the oldest occupational groups. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the average age of working farm owners is 58.3 years, up by more than a year from the previous census in 2007.

The farmer who rents my crop ground is several years older than I am and in better shape physically. When I ask him what his plans are for the future he says, “Keep farming. I don’t know what else to do.” His primary helper is also past my age.

Michael Duffy, a recently retired economist and rural sociology professor at Iowa State University, commented, “There isn’t a shortage of people who want to begin farming; there is a shortage of farmers who want to retire.”

Farmers know what is most important, like Dr. Benton said. We know what it takes to survive hard times; most of us have learned from mistakes and good fortune.”

According to research studies of farming-related injuries, farmers take calculated risks as they age. Although most farmers experience declining vision, hearing, motor strength, balance and increasing reaction time and limitations from arthritis and assorted other health issues, many choose to keep farming.

Older farmers have a lower rate of non-fatal injuries than younger farmers, but their injuries are usually more severe. One in nine farmers over age 55 becomes involved in a tractor rollover, the most common cause of death among farmers while working, says the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health.

Farmers over age 55 have 2.5 times as many work-related fatalities as younger farmers. But they keep going. Why?

The need to feel useful is incredibly strong in farmers. It’s not that older farmers throw caution to the wind.

They make choices to keep going until the evidence of physical or mental limitations are so overwhelming they can’t be denied, or someone steps in to say, “Enough.”

Can anyone make aging farmers quit? Usually not, until they accept the realization themselves it is time to quit.

I know I can still out-fish almost anyone when I’m in my float tube and using my fly rod and hand-tied flies. I revel in those moments, and I wish they would occur more often. Come to think of it, fishing is considered an agricultural occupation.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact him, go to