(AP) — When he started farming, Tim Zepponi dreamed of the day he'd be able to turn over the family business to one of his sons.
Rising expenses and an ever-slimming profit margin killed Zepponi's dream. He and other farmers now are telling their sons to make their careers in other fields and to find more consistent incomes to support their families.
"(Farming has) changed so much in the last 15 years, I just don't see a future for them," Zepponi, a 46-year-old Leland farmer, said.
He started farming 25 years ago. One son is in junior high. The other is in college studying to be a doctor. "I'm trying to steer them away from it," he said.
A farmer not passing the torch to the next generation spells trouble for the future of the small farmer. "It just means the farmers we have are going to farm more land," said Trey Koger, a soybean specialist at Mississippi State University.
And that's a costly enterprise for a small farmer. According to the USDA in 2007, the fastest growing group of farm operators was 65 and older. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers younger than 45 fell by 14 percent. The number between 45 and 64 rose 13 percent. Those older than 65 rose by 22 percent. In 2007, most farmers — more than 1.7 million — were between 45 and 64.
Farming requires a large investment — a great deal of financing that banks frequently are unwilling to give these days. Given that it costs several hundred dollars to plant a single acre of one crop, it's not uncommon for farmers to borrow "well in excess" of $1 million to operate for a year, said Lester Stephens, an MSU Extension agent in Washington County.
"It's hard for a young person to get started," Stephens said. "Even a good, used tractor would cost you $50,000 to $60,000." New tractors that have air conditioned cabs cost at least $200,000.
Add to that, in the last 10 years, land rents have — in some cases — more than doubled, Leland farmer Mark Fratesi said. Even when dealing with longtime landlords, Zepponi said rents have jumped 50 percent.
"Your rent goes up and (so do) all your expenses — feed, chemical fertilizer, fuel," Zepponi said. "Everybody wants a piece of that pie on the upside, but nobody wants to jump in with you on the downside. You never hear anybody say, 'The market has really taken a hit this year. Let's see about decreasing this rent.'"
On a recent afternoon, several farmers had lunch at Fratesi's Grocery, a Leland restaurant that daily attracts numerous farmers taking a break from work to chat and enjoy a hot meal before heading back to the field.
As Zepponi spoke of wanting more for his children, multiple farmers chimed into the conversation, although most would not talk on the record or give their names.
Not far away, Mark Fratesi, another Leland farmer and the keeper of his family's store, echoed a similar sentiment about his son, Will. Fratesi hasn't been successful in encouraging his son to explore options apart from the family farming business.
"I couldn't talk him into anything else," Fratesi said. "He had his mind set. I wanted him to have a more stable income." For the Fratesis, farming is a generations-old family business.
The family has been farming since the mid 1930s. At one time, the Fratesis had around 15 acres. They now farm more than 5,700 acres, about half of which is leased.
Will Fratesi, 24, heard what his father said. Despite the warnings, all he's ever wanted to be was a farmer. "I just kept coming out here working," the younger Fratesi said while on a break from watering corn. "I just stayed on him and told him this is what I wanted to do."
He and about eight or 10 of his friends have all heard their fathers' doom and gloom stories about farming and they've ignored them. "They're all telling us to do something different," Will Fratesi said. "I couldn't do anything else."
Marvin Cochran, an Avon farmer, has small children, too young to be getting advice on whether to choose a farming career, but he has mentored a teenager. This is 18-year-old Jeffrey Mansour's third summer to work on Cochran's farm. Mansour doesn't want to make a career of it. After working exhausting days — many longer than 12 hours — Mansour wants a different lifestyle, one with set hours. He plans to become a dentist.
Cochran isn't disappointed. And when the time comes, he said he won't pressure his children to follow in his footsteps. "I want them to do whatever their calling in life is to do," he said.
Even those who have given up on the business still plan to pass on the land. Leon Park, 77, farmed in Midnight, about 10 miles from Belzoni, until December. Another year of losses in 2009 was enough to push him out of the business. He auctioned his equipment, but kept his land.
This year, he's renting to two farmers ages 42 and 50. They are not his sons.
When they were younger, he gave his sons the opportunity to choose other careers and they did. One is a catfish farmer. The other is an industrial engineer at a catfish processing plant. If he had it to do over again, today he'd tell them not to go into farming.
"The profit margin is so small, you've got to work a lot of acres to make a living," he said. As for his sons farming now, he's supportive to a point. "They can do what they want," he said, "as long as they can get financed without me."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.