ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Like many baby boomer farmers, Tim Forkner has found the work so frustrating that he asks himself how much more he can take.
''I keep wondering if I want to keep doing this,'' the corn, wheat and bean grower with more than three decades experience said from his 4,500-acre Vernon County farm in western Missouri.
''It costs so much to plant a crop, and there's so much risk and so little margin -- even if you have a good crop,'' Forkner said. ''Then you're dependent on the weather not to mess it up, and on the marketplace for a decent price.
''I can't help but think there'll be good times, but I don't know how far away that is.''
Forkner, 45, has even gently prodded his son Nathan, 22, to consider work with fewer financial hurdles and better paychecks, as many children of baby boomer farmers already have turned to.
According to the Agriculture Department, the average age of an American farm operator in 1997 was 54.3 years, up from 53.3 years in 1992 and 50.5 years in 1982.
With that rise comes questions: How many of those farmers over the next decade or so will still be toughing it out or cashing it in? Will their children take over or take off? And how will any shrinkage in the numbers of farmers born between 1946 and 1964 affect the nation's food supply?
A USDA census in 1997 found that about 44 percent of the nation's farms were owned or run by people who then were 35 to 54 -- largely baby boomers.
As boomer farmers have aged, many have withdrawn from farming or switched to other types of work. Many observers expect that trend to become more pronounced as many farmers find they no longer can justify staying with a livelihood that has poor returns on investment, including land, labor and machinery.
''The cost is just a killer,'' said Wayne Prewitt, farm-management specialist for the University of Missouri's Vernon County extension office. ''You just can't make a living.''
The conventional wisdom is that boomer farmers will continue one of the last century's dominant trends -- selling land to expanding agribusiness operators as the industry becomes more efficient through consolidations.
''We'll see the biggest turnover of agricultural wealth in the next 10 to 15 years than we've ever seen before,'' the Missouri Farm Bureau's Kelly Smith predicts, as the nation's food-producing capacity becomes more concentrated into fewer hands. ''This ball is tumbling downhill, and there's really no way to stop it.''
Eldon Cole has seen many boomer farmers and ranchers keeping their land but still easing out of agriculture in southwest Missouri, where he serves as a regional livestock specialist for the University of Missouri extension.
''By and large, you're going to see mass production,'' Cole said. ''Big farms are getting bigger, and there'll be a proliferation of small livestock enterprises focusing on a niche market. It's probably that group of farmers in the middle that will be kind of sorted out.''
Meanwhile, Smith said, boomers' children are leaving the farms to pursue jobs with better pay and less risk, often getting college degrees in agricultural journalism or law or finding farm-related work in sales for chemical or seed companies. Anything but farm production.
Case in point: 43-year-old Lesley Daniel and her husband Mike, 45, hoped their son Jason and daughter Casie would stick around their Shelby County farm. But their son ''could see us struggling, and he knew there was something better out there,'' Lesley Daniel said.
In May, Jason Daniel, 20, graduated from a Missouri tech school and landed work as an electrical lineman. His sister, 23, got a University of Missouri degree in agricultural journalism and plans to work for a newspaper.
''It was mostly financial, and my brother's the same way,'' Casie Daniel said. ''We kind of saw that financially, farming wasn't going to be a feasible option for us. We both want to be back there, but we both wanted to find something to make a living at.''
Lesley Daniel doesn't mind her children's career paths off the family's corn and soybean farm, where in recent years the Daniels jettisoned their underperforming hog operation and sold a couple hundred acres -- about half their land -- because ''we just couldn't keep up with all the bills.''
''I don't want them to have the worry and the stress like we've had,'' said Lesley Daniel. ''It would have been nice if they could have stayed, but I see their reasoning why they would pursue something different.''
Well put, Tim Forkner says.
''I don't blame them for wanting to do something else; it's understandable,'' he said. ''I used to worry about who was going to produce all the food for the world. But when you're not getting the price, I guess I'm not too concerned about it anymore.''
But while Forkner has counseled his son to find another line of work, Nathan Forkner, who owns 160 acres, isn't budging.
''I guess it's because of my age,'' the younger man said, having sampled construction but finding that farming is ''what I want to do. I guess I'm more optimistic than my dad, and I think for people in my generation it could be more profitable in the future. I guess I'm willing to risk it and try.''
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