Want to Make More than a Banker? Become a Farmer!

Seriously, it's the best job in the 21st century. Down on the farm, incomes are up

  • Photograph by Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

    Tools of the trade surround John Willoughby on his 2,000-acre (800 hectare) plot outside Grand Island, Neb.

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    Most of the money he makes, though, goes back into his farm to pay down debt or buy new equipment. Willoughby says he has seen a lot of new grain bins go up on nearby farms this year. Last summer he spent $220,000 on a new tractor. He also bought a new grain bin ($60,000) and recently a new sprayer ($30,000) to spread herbicides. But the last time he bought land was three years ago, when he picked up 160 acres (65 hectares). Like other farmers, Willoughby says he is a pretty conservative businessperson. To him, land prices seem high. "It was hard to earn money for a number of years," says Willoughby. "I'm not going to waste it."

    Already, the prosperity of farmers, along with rising concerns about U.S. debt, is changing the debate in Washington about agriculture. In early June, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to end tax credits and trade protections that benefit the corn-based ethanol industry. Although few think a complete ban will make it through both houses of Congress, many believe Washington is likely to curb its support of ethanol — long thought to be untouchable because of its popularity in Iowa.

    The real fight will be over the farm bill, which is up for renewal next year. The legislation, which was last passed in 2008, features $19 billion in subsidies for farmers, including $8 billion in direct payments. Some have long opposed the bill because it favors grains over other crops and supports large commercial farms or hobby farmers, who don't need the payments. Even the Iowa Farm Bureau has given up its support for direct payments. Woitaszewski says the amount he receives from the government has dropped dramatically as conditions for farmers have improved. He won't specify how much he gets but says it is roughly enough to cover his property-tax bill. And he says he would consider giving up his payments in return for fewer restrictions on land use. Converting land currently being used to grow grass to corn and other crops is, he says, the only real answer to high food prices.

    Some fear that support from Congress could be ending just when the good times for farmers are entering a rough patch. Farming is a capital-intensive business, and most farmers need to borrow to be able to purchase their tractors and other equipment. Many expect that when the economy either improves or gets significantly worse, interest rates will rise. And rising interest rates will make it more expensive for farmers to borrow, which will lower profits. Historically, farm incomes have crashed during times when the overall economy was improving. And some economists, including Yale's Robert Shiller, are saying there is a bubble in farmland. But many agricultural economists believe the rising demand for food in Asia and elsewhere will mean that crop prices will stay high even after the economy improves.

    For now, though, years of lackluster economic growth and the so-called rise of the rest are likely to ensure that the good times in the U.S.'s farm regions continue. "For most of these years, we just tried to get by," says Woitaszewski. Now grain bins, which break up the seemingly never ending flatness of central Nebraska, are growing faster than crops. Woitaszewski has his own $350,000 storage project in the works. "These are some of the best economic conditions I have seen in my career," he says. It's a sentiment that's welcome — and rarely heard these days beyond the Midwest's amber waves of grain.

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