Rui Medeiros eagerly awaits the day his 22-year-old son, Brian, will take over their 2,200-head dairy in Hanford.
But Medeiros, 48, knows that his son faces huge odds -- because of low milk prices, tighter government regulation and urban encroachment. And his son had to wrestle with whether it made sense to follow in his father's footsteps -- or stay in college and become an accountant.
"The plan is to have him come back and try and keep this running," said Medeiros, a Portuguese immigrant. "But it's going to be tough for this new generation."
It's always been a challenge to pass on a family farm or ranch. Low prices, high operating costs, tighter lending and estate taxes have made the task even tougher in recent years.
And these days, young people have options for different careers, something their parents generally lacked.
Initiatives to aid new farmers have helped, but the recession and -- in the Valley -- uncertain water supplies have made it tougher for some to gain a foothold. The uncertainty has been enough to drive some away from agriculture at a time when the nation's farmers are getting older. Just 2% were younger than 35 in 2007, down from 16% in 1982.
"If we don't have new people to farm, we are talking about the potential for further industrialization in agriculture and a greater reliance on global forces to supply our food," said Kathryn Ruhf, an organizer of the FarmLASTS Project, a federally funded effort to help new farmers.
The project is developing federal policy recommendations to make it easier for people to access land and help families with succession planning.
Groups such as California FarmLink also help transfer family farmland to the next generation and help new farmers find property. One way that group helps is by holding seminars to walk families through the legal and accounting realities -- or even just to bring family members to the table to talk about what can be a touchy topic.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture's loan program for new farmers and ranchers has seen an uptick in activity. Young farmers often need loans to start a farm, buy it from their parents or pay estate taxes.
"As farmers get older, we are seeing more and more finding it harder to keep their operations going and keep their sons and daughters involved in farming," said Val Dolcini, executive director of USDA's Farm Service Agency in California. "We used to be the lender of last resort, and now we are trying to be the lender of first opportunity."
Statewide, the number of USDA loans to beginning farmers rose to $38.9 million in 2009, up from $27.5 million in 2006.
But finding capital is only one of the hurdles the new generation of farmers must overcome.
Narrow operating margins in some segments of agriculture make coming back to the family farm difficult.
In the Kern County foothill community of Glennville, Nathan and Nancy Carver are at least a decade away from retiring, but that hasn't stopped them from talking with their children about the future of the family's 4,000-acre, 250-head cattle ranch.
Although wealthy in land, the Carvers aren't rich. They work second jobs to make ends meet. He builds fences for other cattle ranchers, and she sells Avon products.
"It is difficult farming on a small scale, and our children understand," Nancy Carver said. "They will have to think of new ways to do things or expand, and that will take money."
Although the Carver children all have jobs of their own, each has talked about someday returning to the ranch. But they are not sure it can support them financially.