A Lane County, Ore., cattleman questions whether members of the next generation will be interested in operating the Century Farm that was established by his great-grandfather in 1908.
James “Jim” Sly and his wife, Barbara, are content to focus on pasturing calves on their 240-acre farm. They aren’t certain, however, whether any of their three daughters will want to represent the fifth generation of the family enterprise.
“A social change is occurring in this country,” says Sly, who is president of the Lane County Livestock Association. “Families are turning away from ranching.”
This trend is confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reports that “many family operations do not have a next generation skilled or willing to continue farming.”
The Sly ranch falls into the small-family farm category in which many ranchers are employed in another job and work part-time on a farm.
When the Creswell ranch could no longer support the family, Sly’s father began working days as a civil engineer and nights and weekends on the farm.
“He almost was never idle,” Sly says.
Meanwhile, Jim followed in his father’s footsteps by acquiring a civil engineering degree. After serving a hitch in the Navy, he returned home, and his parents gave the ranch to Jim and Barbara.
“I knew that outside employment was the key to keeping the farm,” Sly says. So, like his father, Sly became a civil engineer with a bridge-building company and worked part-time on the farm until his retirement 32 years later in 2010.
The family prepared for his retirement by replacing barns, upgrading tractors and haying equipment and investing in a round bale system.
During that time, Sly says automation doubled hay production, much of it on rented property.
While ranching today is primarily a part-time business, Sly says he is concerned about families turning away from cattle ranching in the United States where the average size of a cow herd is 50 head.
“The basic reason is because it’s too much work for not enough pay,” he says. “You have to get up at 4 or 4:40 to feed your cattle before you change your clothes and go to work. You spend every weekend on the farm.”
Despite the long work days, Sly says, “I still feel that it can be a good life with the right balance of farm and personal time.”
While Sly says he is uncertain whether any members of the next generation will want to continue the ranch operation, he and his wife are planning an exit strategy.
“The best thing I could do for the family would be to sell it two weeks before I die,” says the 63-year-old Sly, whose mailing address has never changed.
“Your exit strategy must deal with taxes,” he says. “In any event, I would like the family to do what’s best for the family. I’m the farmer.”