Having just celebrated a birthday in December, I started thinking that indeed I am growing older – like many in the farming population. To me, clean water and nutritious food are the two most important items as far as securing one’s survival. An aging farm population could have national security implications down the road. Amidst COVID, we got a taste of the importance of a strong and vibrant food system – and what happens if that continuum is disrupted. I want to explore this issue of an aging farm population and see where we are and what needs to be done to make sure we have the people who can produce the food and keep the shelves full.
The advancing age of U.S. farmers has been a growing concern for years. According to the 2017 Ag Census, the average age of all American farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years (up 1.2 years from 2012), continuing the long-term trend of an aging U.S producer population. Producers also tend to be experienced, as they have been on their current farm an average of 21.3 years.
The aging farmer demographic question is far more complex than simply looking at the rising age. First, according to the census data, the age of farmers relative to the overall U.S. population is not very different, as our overall population is also aging. If we view historical data, farmers have been older than the general U.S. population for some time and I believe that reflects the farming enterprise itself, as farming in many cases is capital intensive. It takes time for the necessary capital to be accumulated to begin to farm. It isn’t uncommon for children of farmers to leave, work elsewhere and then come back to the farm later in life for a variety of reasons – one being the retirement of their parents. Sometimes it’s because they, after being away for some time, now have the means to invest in the operation or buy their parents out.
I believe that another consideration is that one must love to farm beyond it just being a vocation. This is true for other professions as well. You need to have a passion for what you do, and one of the defining characteristics of farmers is that they love to farm. Consequently, many of them remain in farming much longer than those engage in other professions, although the physical demands cannot be ignored. The physical demands can be reduced due to increased mechanization and new technologies, but it’s still a physically demanding profession.
Another big factor to consider is a large, new entrance route into agriculture that is tied to the local food movement and largely involves middle-aged professionals (those in their forties and fifties) who want to return to an agrarian way of life. Folks that may have been successful in another career field decide they want to experience a rural lifestyle, whether they’ve ever been on a farm or not. They want to take their money and buy some acreage and grow vegetables, small fruits, herbs, start a winery, raise goats and produce cheeses or grow flowers. These people represent the increasing diversity of agriculture beyond the traditional. Their farming operations may be small in size but are very productive in output and quality of product.
Somehow, the knowledge of farming, whether conventional or organic, needs to be gained by individuals who want to farm and replace those that are aging and thinking of retiring. Just think of some of the disciplines represented: Knowledge of soils and fertilizers, plant diseases, insect pests, weed management, growing and caring for a variety of plants, mechanic skill, marketing expertise, business expertise and labor management, to name a few. For those coming from farm backgrounds, non-farm backgrounds and change of career folks getting into farming, there are great opportunities for education from land grant universities such as Penn State, Michigan State, Cornell, University of Florida and University of California at Davis, private ag institutions such as Delaware Valley University or Cal Poly, or the Rodale Institute. Extension services in each state can help in the training, provide support for growers and provide other hands-on education options for folks to succeed in farming in the future. Growing up on a farm where knowledge is passed from one generation to the next is great, but today we have a lot of people from non-farm backgrounds that need to receive that knowledge and experience so they can be successful.
I’d like to encourage everyone to not only develop new educational programs but to also be rigorous in the assessment of their performance so that the best way to provide the tools necessary to farm are really practiced at many different levels. In recent years, the USDA has developed programs attempting to encourage or assist younger people to farm. One example is the USDA program for grants for organizations that will develop training and provide other resources for the newest agrarians across the nation: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
The face of the farmer may be aging but interest in farming and the ability to grow and produce food is an ancient drive that continues today. Our aim should be to make sure that replacements for the aging farmer are able to put on the myriad of hats that a farmer wears and continue the production of food in a safe and secure manner into the future.
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