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The myth of the aging US farmer

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  • Farmers are getting older, but only at the same rate as the rest of the American workforce.

The aging U.S. farmer crisis is overstated and doesn’t match the numbers. Sure, farmers are getting older, but so is the rest of the American workforce. As little as 0.5 percent of farmers are under the age of 25, and it’s often argued that half of all farmland will change hands in the next 20 years, but panic over the graying of U.S. agriculture is without merit — at least that’s the opinion of economist Carl Zulauf, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, Ohio State.

Zulauf has gleaned labor information from USDA census data (1945-2007) and DOL data (1980-2010) to reach a conclusion that is markedly different from current consensus: “In short, putting the age of farmers in perspective suggests the U.S. will likely have little problem replacing its aging farmer population.”

 

(Meet one of the youngest farmers in America)

 

How does Zulauf build his case?

In Putting the Age of U.S. Farmers in Perspective, he acknowledges that the age of farmers has increased 17 percent, or 8.4 years, from 1945 to 2007. (In that same 62-year span, farmers aged 65+ have jumped from 14 percent in 1945 to 30 percent in 2007.) Taken alone, the numbers are stark, but taken as a whole with general U.S. labor force stats, the picture changes.

From OSU: “However, since 1980, when data on the age of the labor force became available, the average age of the U.S. labor force increased by 7.1 years, from 34.6 to 41.7. During the same time period, the average age of U.S. farmers has increased by 7.1 years (from 50.5 to 57.1). Thus, each population has aged in concert with one another, Zulauf said.”

Zulauf points out a key decline (and the only decline) in average farmer age took place from the mid- to late-1970s — paralleling growth in agriculture. Will that age decline repeat itself with current agriculture prosperity? Zulauf believes it will: “U.S. farmers are aging, but their aging mirrors the U.S. labor force. The U.S. farmer population is older than the U.S. labor force, but this has been true since 1980 and likely much earlier. 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. While much is written about the need to replace the aging U.S. farmer population, the 1970 period of farm prosperity suggest the current period of prosperity will lead to an influx of younger farmers, sons and daughters of existing farmers and from non‐farm backgrounds. This influx will likely occur over a number of years and its magnitude will depend on the staying power of the current farm prosperity.”

Time will tell……

 

(Meet one of the youngest farmers in America)

 

Follow me on Twitter: @CBennett71

Email me: cbennett@farmpress.com

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 12, 2013

I disagree with the professor. His case is built on the idea that there WILL be people to replace the aging farmers who have adequate knowledge and skill. But he does not cite any specific evidence. I know that the level of growth in farm operation size and the loss of farmland amounts I have seen both here in California and in the other parts of the country I have visited over the last decades suggest otherwise. There are vast parts of the rural US where depopulation has occurred and the young are not still on most farms. Most of my relatives that were farmers, their kids did not follow on and their farms are now either gone or leased by big operations.
Sorry to say that the professor should perhaps focus on ways to help turn this around....

on Nov 12, 2013

I agree with the professor, but my experience is only Californian. Just walk through any college ag department in California. Packed with students! Yes, most are training for an allied services profession, but the "drift" to traditional farming is undeniable . Some will start like me, as part time, but the more driven will make the jump to full time by the time they are 45 or so. Others will buy into or cleve off farming employers. Capital, land, experience and reputation take time to accumulate and 20 years is about right. His opportunity/prosperity thesis is also spot on for us in the west. To address the concern of depopulation: the article does not address immigration but recall that agriculture has always been an immigrant occupation - why would it change now?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 18, 2013

I don't agree with him. The averaged age of the farmers I know are 50 and up and I don't see that many young people following in the family tradition. They may be going into ag but most are going on into industry.

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