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Farmers-to-be can't afford the fields

Rising costs are keeping a new generation from tilling the soil in the heartland.

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Todd Weitekamp longs to work with tractors and machinery, to get dirty, to watch plants grow. Strong, clean-cut, and amiable, he grew up in the Illinois countryside baling hay, tending cattle, and "walking the beans" - trudging down long rows of soybeans, yanking weeds.

Mr. Weitekamp wants nothing more than the opportunity to farm. But he spends his days driving the flat highways and dusty back roads of central Illinois as the representative of an Iowa seed company, happy to be close to farming and yet endlessly reminded of what lies beyond his reach: land.

"The price of farmland has just been skyrocketing the past few years," he says. "It makes it very hard for anybody to get into farming."

The dark prairie soils of central Illinois grow some of the world's finest corn and soybeans. They also command steeply rising prices, inflated in part by investors who snap up farmland across the Midwest. While rising prices are good for older landowners, whose land may represent a life's savings, they make breaking into the farming business tougher than ever and are the most recent of many developments that are putting a way of life at risk.

Farmland, like other real estate, is appreciating throughout the country. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported in May that farmland values in the region rose an average of 10 percent over the preceding year and as much as 14 percent in some states, including Illinois.

Steven Ford, a farm-loan manager for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Normal, Ill., says he's seen fewer and fewer aspiring farmers. The FSA loans money to farmers whose circumstances make it difficult to borrow from a bank.

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