The Farmer Population Is Aging—And Fast!
Categories: On The Farm
Everyone knows American workers are aging, but farmers are longer in the tooth than workers in almost any other occupation. According to the Labor Department, the median age for farmers and ranchers is 55.9 years, second among tracked occupations only to “motor vehicle operators, other,” who have a median age of 59.2
It’s not just that farmers are among America’s oldest workers – their average age also has been growing rapidly for about 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture, which recently released new data. This census, which is published every five years, shows that during the last 30 years, the average age of U.S. farmers has grown by nearly eight years, from 50.5 years to 58.3 years.
There’s lots of talk about the aging farmer. The average age of the American farmer is 58, and even with a small influx of new farmers, this number isn’t significantly decreasing. Now we have the “hipster-farmer” trend, bringing younger people into the farming fold—particularly into sustainable farming—I think people have relaxed a little, but the age crisis is real. While this new interest in making a difference in local food systems is great, it might not be enough, and it certainly isn’t enough if this interest can’t be sustained and continue to grow.
Rangelands, the journal of the Society for Range Management, looked at farming in Wyoming, in particular, and found that the average age of the farmer has increased every year since 1920. They expect to have no farm and ranch operators younger than 35 by 2033 and an average farmer/range age of 60 by 2050. They’re also predicting that, with the incredible cost of land and equipment, even existing farmers and ranchers are more likely to sell out of the industry than to pass along their livelihoods to the next generation.
Why Age Matters
I don’t have to tell you that farming is hard work. I’m only a few years above the “young farmer” age definition, and even since I started working hands-on to produce food, my body feels the difference that a few years makes.
Younger farmers are more physically able, obviously, and they also tend to be more adaptable to new ideas and technology. It’s not that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but a farmer in his 20s who starts out using an iPhone in the field with cloud-based technology that syncs with his laptop in his office is already ahead of the record-keeping curve than an older farmer who learned how to do everything using paper and pencil.
Younger farmers have less of the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality when it comes to growing systems, crop varieties and crop chemicals, too, making them more adaptable to new research. And, I think, younger farmers have more of a social need that drives them to interact with, share ideas with and offer support to fellow farmers—something so often lacking in a rural lifestyle.
Where You Come In
Whether you identify as a young farmer, an old farmer or someone in between, you can help support the next generation of farmers coming along.
Nearly one-fifth of farms—large and small—are operated by farmers over the age of 65. Most of them are likely to retire in the next 20 years, and then what happens to their land? Here’s a chance to pass it along to young people who want to farm. Land trusts are courting older land owners, cooperative extensions are educating farmers about succession and estate planning, and state farming groups are trying to do their part to keep this land in ag use. If you fall into the category of someone transitioning off of your land in the next 10 or 20 years, now is the time to figure out what you’re going to do with it! And if you want to see it remain farmland, generations of eaters to come will thank you. One of the largest barriers to young people wanting to get into farming is lack of access to land.
Get to know other farmers in your area so you can share resources and knowledge and pool your purchases for better buying power. Get to know young people, too, and bring them into the farming fold to—potentially—spark an interest in farming, either as profession or hobby.
The time to act is now! The year 2033 will be here before we know it.
by Lisa Munniksma for Hobby Farms