EDWARDS — Ross Pauli is getting ready for another planting season doing maintenance on some of the equipment he'll use on his 800-acre farm in Edwards.

He's still on crutches from ankle surgery performed over the winter but doesn't expect that to slow him down. "I can drive a tractor now but the ankle has taken longer than I thought to heal," said Pauli, who started farming in 1980.

At 57, Pauli represents the average age of farmers in this state, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau. That follows a national trend where the number of farmers older than 65 outnumbers farmers younger than 35 by a margin of six to one.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. farmland is set to transition to new ownership within the next 20 years, according to the Hudson, N.Y.-based National Young Farmers Coalition.

While farmers are getting older, the number of farms is declining. A hundred years ago, Illinois, a major agricultural state, boasted of 241,000 farms. Today that number is 71,000, according to the farm bureau.

But farms that remain are getting bigger, a trend that Pauli sees continuing. "Farming is too expensive to break into. You can't go out and buy land and the equipment needed unless you're raising vegetables on smaller acreage," he said.

One of the problems is one of succession, said Pauli. "I have a neighbor, a farmer who's 67 with no one in his family to carry on for him. Other (neighboring) farms will probably take it over," he said.

"Even the big guys don't always have enough family," said Pauli.

Chris Magnuson, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said the growth of individual farms in the state is likely to continue. "Existing farmers are always on the lookout for more land," he said.

One of the reasons for that is that technology helps farmers be more productive. As equipment has gotten more complex and more expensive, farmers are able to farm more ground with fewer people, said Magnuson.

Between 1982 and 2012, the percentage of U.S. cropland on farms with at least 2,000 acres more than doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — from 15 percent to 36 percent. Big farms have gotten bigger at the expense of small and mid-sized farms, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Patrick Kirchhofer, manager of the Peoria County Farm Bureau, said the fact that farmers continue to work past the time that others might retire "shows that farmers like what they're doing."

"It's a lifestyle that a lot of people like. You can be your own boss and you're rewarded by making good decisions," he said.

There's also an ever-changing set of challenges to experience, said Kirchhofer. "You see something different every year. Each growing season brings changes — different diseases, insects and government programs," he said.

Today's agricultural economy requires one to go big or go bust, said Pauli. "I farm 800 acres but I couldn't make it if my wife wasn't a teacher. We need that full-time salary," he said.

"I don't have any kids to take over when I'm ready to retire. I'd like to find a young farmer for my land," said Pauli.

While the barriers to farming are well-established, organizations like the Champaign-based Land Connection have sprung up to offer training on farming techniques while working to protect farmland in the state.

As for Illinois farmers that want to stay on the job, there's help for them, too. Illinois AgrAbility is a program operated out of the University of Illinois that seeks to provide assistance to older agricultural workers.

"We see more and more farmers dealing with age-related problems like diabetes and arthritis," said Bob Aherin, the program director. "We can help them carry on with programs and assistive technology. We can help them with the cost of that technology, as well," he said.

"We see farmers in their 70s and 80s — even some in their 90s — that still want to work," said Aherin. "Our belief is to give farmers a hand-up, not a handout," he said.

Contact AgrAbility at (833) 810-7973 or through their website,  AgrAbilityUnlimited.org.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.