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An airplane-dependent Colorado ranch profiled in a 1952 Look magazine article. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Look Magazine Photograph Collection)

An Airplane in Every Barn

A once-thriving organization of rural pilots is struggling to survive.

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“Did you see me land…both times?” said Eugene Shore, grinning sheepishly. The 70-year-old farmer had lightly bounced his Cessna 206 as it touched down on the Kansas grass airstrip of longtime friend Jack Jenkinson. Wearing jeans and a jacket and carrying a cooler, Shore climbed from the airplane and ambled to an open hangar where chairs and tables were set for 75.

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Over the next hour or so, 20 more single-engine aircraft followed. Directed to the east-west runway by a bulging windsock, the aircraft swept in one after another and rolled to a stop on blue grama-buffalo grass. Each pilot carried a dish for the upcoming lunch.

Jenkinson’s farm is 12 miles from the town of Meade and just beyond the reach of gravel roads. From the air, the farmstead’s crosshatch of runways is clear, a target for pilots headed for this International Flying Farmers Kansas Chapter fly-in.

The fly-in is a Flying Farmers tradition that dates back decades, and one of the few activities that the organization is still able to sustain. Today, the Flying Farmers is a modest operation, but at its peak, the group offered not just member services and perks but lobbying on national issues affecting rural pilots.

Jenkinson and his wife Della are first-generation Flying Farmers, and the family also has a love of machinery in general, which seems to be characteristic of Flying Farmers. At the fly-in, just about every type of motorized vehicle could be found between the cedar and Austree windbreaks that protect the Jenkinson farmstead from plains winds.

Before his first guest arrived, Jenkinson towed his Cessna 172 and 170 from the hangar. Grandson Dusty Giessel zipped around on a Suzuki 50 motorbike near his grandparents’ Honda Goldwing motorcycle. At one point Jenkinson scooped up dirt with a Ford tractor and dumped it in a cart hooked to a Honda ATV. Then, with a cap clamped on his head of white hair and an orange insulated vest zipped against a morning breeze that had tumbleweeds rolling, he raced down the runway. Standing on the three-wheeler’s footrests, Jenkinson scanned the runway for badger holes to fill.

“Some people grow up,” he said good-naturedly about his menagerie of machines, “and some people just grow old.”

Growing old is the Flying Farmers’ urgent problem. The average age of a member in 1947 was 37; today it is approaching twice that. Twenty-six years ago, then-president DeLane Fry warned against complacency about recruiting younger members. “Continued membership is the lifeblood of any organization,” the Oregon dairyman wrote in 1981, “and certainly International Flying Farmers will eventually perish unless we each do our part.”

Four years earlier, International Flying Farmer membership had reached its peak: 11,000. Today it is 1,400, and no members are in the growth sector of “corporate farming,” according to Kathy Marsh of the Flying Farmers headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. Some attribute the membership decline to the crisis in general aviation liability insurance that in the late 1980s forced Cessna to discontinue production of small aircraft for several years. Others blame the dwindling of the farm population. Simply put, farms today are fewer and bigger than they used to be, and they are more often run as industries than as family businesses. Flying Farmers was conceived in an era that was very different for both farmers and pilots.

The group began in 1944, on the campus of Oklahoma A&M University, as a state organization; it went national the next year. (The addition of Canadian chapters made the organization “International” in 1961.) A survey conducted in 1948 estimated that 20,000 U.S. farmers and ranchers were flying.

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