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Oklahoma family farms dwindle with rising cost of operation

Oklahoma family farms dwindle with rising cost of operation. (KOKH)

From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, we thank a farmer. But there are fewer farmers in Oklahoma these days.

The family farmer is disappearing as the cost of breaking even is getting higher.

From atop the farmer's grain elevator in Hunter you can see all the fall harvests from wheat to sesame.

Just down the road — and a little closer to the ground — Raymond Parrish's soybean crop is looking exceptionally good this year.

"i started farming part time in 1979 when I married my wife," he said. "Her dad was a farmer out here,"

Part time went to full time, and these days Parrish is responsible for 2,400 acres — about 1,800 of which are in production this year.

"My summer crops, about one-third goes into corn, a third soybeans and a third grain sorgum," he said, "and every once in a while I plant a little sesame."

At 61, Parrish has surpassed the 58-year-old average age of an Oklahoma farmer.

His farm is also above the average 440 acres, but besides being an above-average farmer, Parrish is also a survivor — continuing cultivation as many of his northwest Oklahoma neighbors have sold off land.

"You can tell around here, I remember around harvest time you'd see your neighbor cutting wheat and everything else and going to town but now it's like you're by yourself out there when you're cutting wheat," Parrish said.

In the last decade, nearly 10,000 farmers have called it quits, according to numbers kept by the USDA's national ag statistics.

"It is definitely seeing a tougher time in the farm economy side so the farming climate is a little different for the economy so it is a little tougher for those family farms," said Troy Marshall, who is Oklahoma's statistician.

The numbers also point to another troubling trend — farmers are getting older, there's been a significant increase in the number of farmers who are past 65.

Marshall says the USDA has programs to help and encourage new farmers — but getting into farming takes a lot more than a green thumb.

Commodity prices have failed to keep up with the cost of farming, so farmers farm to survive. And if there's no one who can afford to take over what it costs to just break even on the farm, then retirement may mean selling to a corporate farm.

"I've been thinking about that seriously lately since I'm getting older and every time I get on a combine or tractor or something after work on it, I get a little stiffer every year," Parrish said. "I worry about that a lot and i don't know what i'm going to do for sure,"

Only time will tell if the season of mid-sized operations has run its course, but if the trends continue, we may be witness to the final harvests of the family farm.

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