Larry Voll has spent most of his life working the land, growing fruits and vegetables to sell at the market where he started working at age 13.
That same market, Soergel Orchards, is also the place where he met his wife, Linda. The two are sixth-generation farmers, and Voll is quick to point out his children are continuing that tradition into the seventh generation. It's a feat he doesn't take lightly.
“It is my dream,” said Voll, who serves as president of the Butler County Farm Bureau. “Only 2 percent of the population in the United States are farmers, and I'm grateful that I'm part of that 2 percent.”
That figure includes those working the roughly 950 farms in Butler County — a number that is dwindling due to land development and the struggles facing young farmers. However, new legislation and programs are aimed at helping generational farmers continue their family's work and new farmers get their businesses off the ground.
Learning on the job
Like many farmers, Voll grew up learning the trade.
In addition to the Wexford farm and market, members of the family own acreage around Prospect and rent additional space. Similar to his own experience, his children learned to love the business and took it a step further by studying agriculture and horticulture in college.
This enabled their business to thrive, with each family member bringing an area of expertise to the table. While Linda Voll manages the books and leads educational tours, Voll's son is the “brains” behind the growth operation. Voll himself focuses on cider pressing, and other family members focus on implementing technology.
“The next generation took the bull by the horns and they're really moving things along,” he said.
Much like Voll, Jim Boldy of Winfield Township grew up working on a dairy farm owned by his family. Over the years, he also learned to raise beef cattle, hogs, vegetables and grain before buying his own acreage in 1960. He said he learned the ins and outs of farming from his father. That trend continued with his own children.
“It wasn't a job,” he said. “They enjoyed working together.”
It's the same for Ken Metrick, who has owned Metrick's Harvest View Farm and Market in Connoquenessing Township for 28 years. Raised on a dairy farm situated next to his current farm, he learned by doing. He also sharpened his skills and love for the job through National FFA Organization programs and agriculture courses at Butler High School.
“I learned it naturally,” he said. “Nobody sat me down and taught me.”
While love for their work hasn't waned, Voll, Boldy and Metrick all know the struggles facing modern-day farmers.
Voll said the cost of buying land has increased drastically. He recalled paying $1,000 for farmland 50 years ago, but pointed out the same land would command $15,000 or more now. He said finding land to buy or rent is a challenge for those who haven't inherited a family business.
Metrick noted that equipment costs also add up. He said an effort must be made to find good used equipment at a lower cost, rather than purchasing new machinery. Additionally, Boldy said finding workers outside the family can be challenging enough, but maintaining that workforce is an even bigger challenge.
“If you had to go out and hire people to do it all, you can't afford it,” he said.
Boldy said those who inherit land face their own challenges. He said his children needed to take second jobs to keep a steady income while also running the farm.
Metrick said dairy farms have been among the hardest hit in recent years. He said the market price per unit is the same now as it was in the 1970s, leading some farmers to make tough decisions.
“You can't sell products at 1975 prices and try to survive with 2019 costs,” he said.
Many farmers have diversified their business models to make it sustainable, Boldy said. Voll and Metrick said they have relied upon markets to do so.
Metrick said the direct marketing has helped keep costs low and provides direct income, and allows farmers to not be beholden to wholesale prices dictating what the product is worth.
Still, farming remains inherently a tough business to thrive in.
“To go out there cold turkey and buy a farm and buy machinery, it's rough sledding,” Boldy said. “Lets face it, the average farmer, after paying help and expenses, if he makes $10,000 a year he considers himself fortunate.”
Growing new farmers
With a lifetime of farming experience of his own, State Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-47th, hopes to change the landscape for young farmers.
Through Senate Bill 478 introduced last month, tax credits would be given to landowners who sell or lease land to beginning farmers. Vogel, whose district includes parts of Beaver and Butler counties and all of Lawrence County, said the bill addresses a disparity in the number of farmers in the state. For every four individuals over the age of 65, there is one under 35, he said.
It could also help young people with farming backgrounds return to the family business. Vogel noted that if a person grew up farming, but pursued another career in their adult life, they could still be considered new farmers.
“I think this gives a segue to make it easier for dad to want to sell because he gets a tax break and the kids get a deal to come back at a lower cost, and try to keep the farms we have the best we can,” he said.
Vogel, a fourth-generation farmer, knows the struggles of farming. He lives on a 370-acre farm just inside the Beaver County line where he grew up. The land was used for dairy farming until 2016 when Vogel's father died.
It was the last operational dairy farm on a stretch of Glen Eden Road that at one time was home to 17 farms. He said the trickle down impact of those farms disappearing is clear, with stores specializing in grain, feed and farm equipment parts closing in recent years.
Additionally, Vogel said his wife, Sue, works at a 4-H Club in Beaver County that draws less than 100 youths. He said when the two were young and participating, there were nearly 400 others involved.
He said as the industry has declined, lifetime farmers have sold off their land for development — a last resort for many. He said many of those people spent their lives working to barely make a living, and cashing out and retiring is an appealing option.
“I don't blame them a bit,” Vogel said.
However, he said initiatives like his bill and the Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program hope to halt that trend. The program lets state and county governments purchase conservation easements from farmers, paying farmers for the land and ensuring it won't be used for development. To date, 5,329 farms and 52,702 acres have been preserved.
Vogel expects his bill, currently being considered in the finance committee, will see movement soon. He said outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, every district in the state has an interest in farming, and he anticipates the bill receiving support because of that. He added that farming will continue to be an area of focus, both in his personal and professional lives.
“Once you get it in your blood, it's hard to get out, no matter how old you are,” he said.
Metrick said he and other farmers are appreciative of Vogel's efforts. Still, he said passion for the job remains the most important element of a productive farm.
“If you don't like what you're doing in farming, you're not going to succeed,” he said.