LEOMINSTER, Mass. — Bill Broderick’s family has owned Sunny Crest Orchards in Sterling for almost 150 years.
Since 1880, his great-grandfather, grandfather and father have worked on the Sterling farm, first as dairy farmers and then as apple farmers.
But Bill will be the last Broderick to farm the land, and because of this, the future of that land is uncertain.
“I never married, and I don’t have kids, so I don’t have a succession plan,” Broderick said.
He has several young employees on the farm, “but whether they’re interested in doing this 20 years from now, I don’t know.”
He is far from the only Massachusetts farmer in this position.
A study released recently by American Farmland Trust and Land for Good shows that nearly one-third of Massachusetts farms are owned or managed by farmers 65 or older, and most of them don’t have someone they’re training to take over.
The study reports on characteristics of farmers in New England and what their succession plans are for after retirement.
According to the study, in 2012, 30 percent of Massachusetts farmers identified themselves as 65 or older, and an additional 31 percent were 55-64 years old.
Ninety-two percent of senior farmers (65 and older) reported not having a younger farmer working with them as part of a succession plan.
Joanne DiNardo, the board of directors president of Leominster’s Sholan Farms, said she’s heard many farmers share this concern.
Sholan Farms is a special case, she explained, because it is protected land under the Agricultural Preservation Restriction, owned by the city of Leominster, and managed by the volunteer group Friends of Sholan Farms.
DiNardo said “most of the concerns for farmers not like us, the ones (that are) family-oriented, were that they were a second, third, fourth or fifth generation, and nobody is interested in taking over the farm.”
According to the 2012 data, senior farmers without a succession plan own a collective $1.5 billion in farmland and buildings, and manage 154,000 acres of land in farms.
On a large scale, these numbers represent a local economy and agriculture in jeopardy.
On an individual level, not having a succession plan means many of these farmers don’t have a safety net.
Senior farmers face the prospect of being forced to sell their land or to give up the family business.
Broderick isn’t quite a senior farmer, but even when he turns 65, retirement isn’t in the near future – or maybe in his future at all.
“If I retired, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “The best you can hope for is to have a massive heart attack and die in the field.”
For the foreseeable future, Broderick said he will work on the farm, using his modest profit to support himself and his 94-year-old mother.
If he is no longer able to work, he’ll sell the land for housing, as “a last resort.”
Lisa and Paul Gove are fortunate to have another option.
The couple, who own Gove Farm in Leominster, plan to eventually pass the fruit and vegetable farm along to their 17-year-old son John, who will attend an agricultural college.
“Since he’s young, he’s had his own crops to experiment with, and I think that’s given him a lot of appreciation of what farming is about,” said Paul Gove. “He has a lot of good ideas and a lot of insight for someone in high school, and I think he’ll eventually be taking over.”
Gove, like Broderick, took over the farm from his parents.
With their son and daughter, he and Lisa “tried not to put any pressure” on them in terms of taking over the family farm.
He acknowledged, though, “it is difficult growing up on a farm that’s been a farm since the mid-1800s, not to feel a little bit of pressure.”
For Broderick, taking over the farm was a foregone conclusion.
“I grew up riding the tractor on my father’s knee, and I always knew this was what I was going to do,” he said.
Younger generations may be less inclined to feel this inevitability, Gove and DiNardo said.
“(Taking over the family farm) is a nice thing to do,” said DiNardo, “but it’s a lot of work.”
Gove said he knows a few farmers who have recruited successors outside their families, from agricultural schools.
“(Former agricultural students) work as interns for awhile with the idea that they may take over,” he said. “But finding people is hard.”
The number of young farm operators in Massachusetts is dwindling, according to the American Farmland Trust study. In 2012, there were 16 percent fewer young farm operators (under 45) than there were in 2002.
Sholan Farms was lucky to find farm manager Mike Meehan, who is in his 40s and “very energetic,” said DiNardo.
However, the board of directors does have concerns about how the farm will stay up and running in coming years.
“We’re mostly running with volunteers, and the volunteer base is eroding, because this next generation doesn’t seem to want to volunteer,” she said. “So, how are we going to staff it as we go forward? Do we want to sell it to another farm? It’s not going to sustain itself if we don’t do something.”