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LITTLEFIELD — Jimmy Drake started farming when he was 18.
He had grown up learning the intricacies of agriculture alongside his father under the unforgiving West Texas sun. He would come home covered in dirt that is good for little but growing cotton.
He has managed the land for the last seven decades. There has been abundance. There has been devastation. Through it all, Drake was propelled by a sense of family and purpose. He belonged to the land as much as it belonged to him.
And then, last year, a longtime employee resigned. Working 2,500 acres — more than three times the size of the State Fair of Texas — alone was suddenly daunting. At 85, Drake had to call it quits. But unlike his father and grandfather before him, Drake’s children won’t be taking on the farm.
Drake, who is now 86 years old, is not the only farmer who has faced this dilemma. He won’t be the last. In 2017, there were nearly 41,000 Texas farmers who were 75 or older. There were another 65,000 between the ages of 65 and 74. It’s as much a fact as the sun rises in the east: Texas farmers are getting older and can’t continue the hard labor.
The steady increase in the age of farmers is not unique to Texas, and is part of a national trend — the 2017 agriculture census found the average age of all U.S. farm producers rose 1.2 years from the 2012 census.
In many cases, they either don’t have family to leave their land to or their family doesn’t want it. Drake’s son is a retired farmer himself.
“We are elderly and we don’t have enough young people coming along,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. “A lot of these farmers will sell because none of their heirs want to take over the operation.”
Drake was a lucky one. Tanner Heffington, a young, trusted neighbor who also had farming in his blood, agreed to take care of the land.
“I was glad Tanner was there, but it still didn’t feel too good because my family’s been farming that land,” Drake said. “But, time marches on.”
For the first time in two generations, the Drake farm wouldn’t be taken care of by the family — a reality for Drake harder to grasp than the dry soil underneath his boots.
Cotton was Drake’s lifelong friend — and bitter rival at times. He couldn’t simply call it quits and let his land go to the next highest bidder. Had it not been for his employee leaving, Drake said he could still go.
Whit Weems, who leads education outreach at Texas Farm Bureau, said even though there are a lot of producers reaching retirement age, farmers rarely make the choice to officially retire.
“Farming and ranching is a passion and a lifelong calling,” Weems said. “It’s something farmers will continually do, up until death or their health doesn’t allow it.”
For Drake, finding someone to take it over was easy in Littlefield, a small town nearly 40 miles northwest of Lubbock.
Heffington is Drake’s best friend’s grandson, and someone Drake considers family.
Heffington, 31, and Drake have a bond that has grown naturally over Heffington’s lifetime. For as long as Heffington remembers, the two have had lunch every Sunday and talk on the phone regularly. Drake has memories of Heffington running around as a toddler and remembers when, as a teenager, Heffington accidentally started a large grass fire in town that ended up being front page news.
Heffington jokes that Drake didn’t give him much of a choice about taking on his 2,500 acres.
“It takes a certain kind,” Drake said. “You gotta be bred for it.”
The two have also bonded over agriculture, particularly the pride they feel as being contributors to the nation’s food, fuel and fiber industries by growing cotton.
“I can’t describe the feeling of working all year and watching that crop grow,” Heffington said as he looked out to the farmland surrounding him. “Then you get to harvest and say ‘I grew that.’ This is what we’re used to, this is our everyday.”
It easy to understand why the farming industry isn’t alluring to some young people. Texas farmers face unique challenges: drought, storms and unpredictable markets. It's costly to start. Heffington’s first tractor cost $49,000.
A single machinery breakdown can spell the difference between a farmer ending the year flush or in debt.
The young farmers — those 35 and under — who do take this on only account for about 9% of the state’s farms.
Agricultural officials have taken notice of the barriers that could keep young farmers and ranchers out of the business, and have made programs specifically to draw them in.
The Young Farmer Grant program by the Texas Department of Agriculture is open for people 18-46 years old and provides money for creating or expanding a business. The grants can range from $5,000 to $20,000.
“We’ve helped a lot of people get started and we think we get a good return on our investment,” Commissioner Miller said. “Those people just need a little bit of help to get them going.”
Miller also applauded livestock shows across the state that provide scholarships for young people and similar programs, including the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau.
Weems, of the Farm Bureau, said the people interested in their program are a mix of young people coming back to their family farm or newcomers with little experience and a genuine interest in agriculture.
“There’s opportunities for them to work with individuals that are looking at transitioning out or passing that farm on to another generation,” Weems explained. “Agriculture is critical to our survival, so it’s important that young people stay engaged.”
Heffington can name a half dozen farmers around him who have retired since he started farming, but he said he won't take on any more acres. He likes helping Drake, whose farm is 20 miles away from Heffington’s, but that’s his limit for now.
“I think I’m tapped out on what me and my two employees can do,” Heffington explained. “I’m pretty content where I’m at, but I’m sure that’s going to change one day.”
Heffington is aware of the challenges he will likely face, because he saw it growing up on his dad’s cotton farm. Still, Heffington knows cotton like the back of his hand and wants to make it his future. Like Drake, he sees himself being in the business for a long time.
“I’ll go until I can’t or something happens,” Heffington said. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
The same is true for Drake — even in retirement.
In between his morning coffee in Littlefield and driving for afternoon coffee in nearby Sudan, Drake is known to do small things Heffington might need around the farm, and doesn’t hesitate to climb in the tractor.
“I drive out to that farm every day,” Drake admits. “Not only to inspect what Tanner’s doing, but that’s where I’ve been all my life. I just keep driving back out there.”
Disclosure: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and Texas Farm Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.