FRESNO, Calif. — Arthritis doesn't stop 89-year-old Shigeo Yokota from climbing on a tractor and tilling the orchards and vineyards around his Kingsburg, Calif., house.
Nor does a thermometer reading above 100 degrees on his shaded porch keep him from walking his farm to open and close irrigation valves, giving his trees and vines a welcome drink.
But time eventually will catch up to Yokota as it has his graying profession.
In California - and across the United States - growers like Yokota, on farms large and small, are getting older.
A fourth of American farmers are 65 or older. Half are 55 or older.
The average age of California farmers moved from 53.2 years old in 1974 to 56.8 in 2002, the last year the federal government conducted an agricultural census.
"They're unable to retire," said University of California Extension economist Steven Blank. "They can't afford it. If the sole source of income is the agricultural operation, and they have no retirement or pension, they reinvest profits to expand or update facilities."
Otherwise, he said, they may sell off assets - such as land. And that, of course, is the source for future farming income.
The trend has significant effects:
Farmers sticking around longer sometimes means deferred dreams for their would-be replacements. In some cases, there's just not enough profit from the family farm to sustain partners. The younger generation may not end up as the "farmers" - owners of farming enterprises - until they're in their 40s or 50s. By then, many have already left to pursue other opportunities.
It means tough choices for family members sorting out how to keep an enterprise going as age takes its toll on the founding generation. When the time for a change in leadership comes, it can be too late to save a run-down farm.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized the issue, making several recommendations for the next Farm Bill. They include calling for $250 million in payments to beginning farmers and ranchers, reserving them a percentage of conservation funds and providing more federal loan flexibility.
Still, pressures on aging farmers mount: urban encroachment, increased regulation, rising fuel and land prices, and adverse weather that can ruin a season.
But not all is bleak. There are signs that interest in farming hasn't waned.
The ranks of 4-H and Future Farmers of America are increasing in California.
Today, there are 130,000 members of 4-H clubs, compared with 62,000 20 years ago.
Today, there are 65,000 FFA members in California. Ten years ago, the total was 50,000. Twenty years ago, there were 29,000 members.
Enrollment remains high in agricultural disciplines at universities.
Many in farming's "next" generation may be keeping their hands in the industry if not the soil.
"Some may be in allied industries - seed sales and banking, for example - waiting for the time when they can get back into production ag," said Sarah Mora, program director for the Young Farmers and Ranchers Program with the California Farm Bureau Federation.
She uses herself as an example. A fourth-generation member of a ranching family in Humboldt County, Calif., the 34-year-old has had to make her living outside the ranch because older family members remain in the business.
Like Mora, many remain on the sidelines, waiting because of other obstacles that extend beyond finding a self-sustaining niche in the family business.
One of those is the price of land, a particularly grating issue in California.
In 1950, when Shigeo and Rosie Yokota purchased the 20 acres where their house sits, the cost was $30,000.
In 1967, they bought an additional 30 acres with a house where their son, Glenn, lives with his family. The total cost for that purchase: $55,000.
Today, the $85,000 - not factoring in inflation - spent in 1950 and 1967 would at best purchase about 8 acres of farmland in California.
Forget the houses.
Although the mortgages on the Yokota houses have long been paid off, the 50 acres of raisin grapes, peaches and nectarines are not enough to sustain the two Yokota families.
Glenn Yokota, 52, does most of the farming and management on both properties as his father has reduced the length of his workdays. But the younger Yokota also works full time at the University of California Kearney Agricultural Center as a staff research associate with the University of California at Berkeley.
"My strategy now is to break even on the farm," Glenn Yokota said, adding he has no plans to retire from his day job anytime soon.
Recent years have been tough for growers of tree fruit and raisin grapes. In recent weeks, the younger Yokota said, the price for tree fruit had dropped so low that it wasn't worth doing one more pass through his orchard.
Some nectarines were left to rot.
There was a time, of course, when a 50-acre operation like that owned by Shigeo and Rosie Yokota, 85, could support a family well.
After all, it paid for Glenn Yokota's college education and those of two sisters: Shirley, a speech language pathologist, and JoAnne, executive director of the Beyond Shelter Housing Development Corp. in the Los Angeles area.
Shigeo Yokota said there are those enterprises - including large farms and packinghouses - where multiple family members can thrive.
Even some of those operators are having second thoughts about encouraging offspring to get into the business.
Brothers Mark and Ross Borba grew their west side farming operation from 4,000 acres to as many as 20,000 acres of a wide array of crops on land they owned or leased. Ross left farming last year, his brother said, and both men have discouraged their children from farming.
"We encouraged all our kids to go to school and get a degree and focus on a career other than agriculture," Mark Borba said.
Borba, 56, said farming was seen as "a romanticized lifestyle in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that attracted generational returns. But it became more of a business, a tough financial business, and kids had the opportunity to go to school and see what the rest of the world had to offer."
Economic downturns in the 1980s and 1990s brought volatility in prices and added financial stress. In 1998, a year punctuated by El Nino weather challenges, Borba lost $6.2 million.
"I've got a few more years to hold the fort down," Borba said. "I think if my dad thought his kids wouldn't return, it would have killed him. Our attitude is that if they don't return to the farm, good for them. There are better ways to make a living."
Farm economist Blank said it's not merely a matter of the adage that farmers never retire because they're so enamored of the lifestyle. The author of a 1998 book "The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio," Blank is wrapping up another book on the economics of commodity production.
"In 2002, 53 percent of farms reported a financial loss; 70 percent were at the poverty line," he said.
"It's not a highly profitable business. It's difficult to get into, but also hard to get out of."
Another University of California expert, Dan Sumner, said he thinks some of the ado over the aging of farmers is unmerited.
"We have all been getting older," he said, a reference to increased life expectancy.
Moreover, he believes the agricultural census can be misleading because it includes farmers who are part-time, with gross sales less than $10,000, and retirees.
"It doesn't mean we're running out of farms," said Sumner, agricultural economics professor at the University of California-Davis. "Some are getting bigger and more multigenerational, to take advantage of scale. Consolidation means a good middle-class living that's attracting talented people."
Some of those new generations are bringing innovations that Blank said will be needed to keep the United States in the game as it competes globally against countries where production costs are considerably lower.
An example: At the DeGroot family's Easton dairy, two brothers have joined their father as partners, one bringing high-tech farming methods, another bringing computerized rationing of feed for the cows.
Blank and Mora, with Young Farmers and Ranchers, have worked with aging farmers to try to ease succession planning, helping with the bridge between older and younger members of the same family.
Another organization, California FarmLink, connects landowners with aspiring farmers, sometimes hooking up aging farmers with those eager to get into farming.
"We sometimes find older farmers who want to transfer farms to the next generation," said Steve Schwartz, FarmLink's founding director. "Some don't have kids who want to farm."
One match made by FarmLink was between an absentee landlord, now living in Oakland, and David Silveira, 42, who grows vegetables on the landlord's Merced property and has a farm-to-consumer customer list of 100 families.
Once the farm is profitable, Silveira hopes to invest in land.
Near the Central Coast, Rebecca King, 31, plans to make cheese from the milk of sheep she is raising, thanks to a match made by FarmLink between her and Jean Harrah.
Harrah, 50, belatedly turned to livestock agriculture herself, moving to her parents' farm five years ago.
Harrah believes it's important to keep her family's land in farming: "This was about coming home. I love being where my parents and grandparents have lived."
The elder Yokotas say their longevity is due in part to staying active on the farm they treasure.
And surviving challenges.
During World War II, Rosie spent three years in a relocation camp in Gila River, Ariz.
Shigeo enlisted in the Army before the attack on Pearl Harbor, worked in counterintelligence in the South Pacific and narrowly missed boarding a military transport plane bound for Okinawa that crashed, killing all aboard.
Not boarding the plane was a stroke of irony. Shigeo said he survived because his last name comes at the end of the alphabet, he said, and he and "two other Y's" were left behind because there was not enough room.
On a mantle in the Yokotas' 100-year-old home are pictures of three grandsons and three great-grandsons.
"They're outstanding, very bright," said.
And he doesn't want any of them to pursue farming.
"It's too tough."