Farmers’ age requires perspective (Editorial)

by | May 2, 2019

With the recent release of the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the rising average age of U.S. farmers is again getting attention as one of the data’s key takeaways.
Though media coverage has focused on the rise as a sign of impending food shortages or collapse of the industry, we choose to temper that view with more perspective.
Compared to 2012 Ag Census data, the average age of the nation’s farmers increased 1.2 years to 57.5 years old and its farm’s primary producers went up 1.1 years to 59.4.
In New Jersey, the average age of all producers, according to the 2017 census is 58.5 years old, up from 57.1 in 2012.
It’s a trend the industry has faced since 1945 when the census began taking data on farmers age. The only notable dip was in the late-1970s, following a boom cycle in agriculture prosperity. Though the trend can’t be denied, the aging of America’s farmers tracks closely with the average age of the nation’s overall workforce and in recent years, farmers have aged at a slightly slower rate than all U.S. workers.
The key difference and cause for concern is the number, of course, with the average age of farmers about 14 years above the national average. But when you consider what it takes to build and maintain a farm operation, the gap is more understandable.
“The U.S. farmer population is older than the U.S. labor force, but this has been true since 1980 and likely much earlier,” Carl Zulauf, Ohio State University agriculture economist wrote in a 2013 analysis. “The older age of farmers is consistent with farming being capital intensive. It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete in U.S.-style farming, either through inheritance or savings or both.”
Experience is crucial in farming, where risk is higher and mistakes are more costly.
It’s one of the reasons ag economists and advisors encourage farm kids intent on a career in agriculture to work outside the family business before returning for a management role. Getting that experience doesn’t help as much in lowering the average age but combined with the experience of older producers with 50 or 60 growing seasons behind them can make a difference in getting through the challenges the industry currently faces. There’s also something to be said for farmers who continue working past the typical retirement age. While we don’t besmirch any farmer who decides to exit farming in pursuit of other interests, neither do we knock those who would rather keep working. Depressed prices, onerous regulations and an uninformed public aside, it’s what they want to do as long as they can do it.
The average age of new and beginning farmers — producers with 10 years or less of farming experience — also runs higher than the national average for workers with the same amount of experience in their respective careers, though the average is showing a decrease from 49 years old in 2007 to 46.3 in 2017. Also countering the rising average age of farmers nationwide is the surge in new and beginning farmers. In 2012, there were 522,058 farmers in the category, a 20 percent drop from the 2007 census. The 2017 data shows 674,940 principal producers and, with the inclusion of farmers that aren’t principal producers, the number jumps to 908,274.
They represent only a quarter of the land farmed in the United States right now but many will grow into more established robust operations just like other startup businesses throughout the economy.
It’s a good, albeit small signal that growing food isn’t going out of style.

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