Young Needles in a Haystack: Try Finding American Farmers Under 35

Bruce Frasier, an onion and cantaloupe grower, weeds an onion plant field at Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs, Tex., in 2011 Photograph by Dixondale Farms via Bloomberg

Phil Becker is still working on his Texas ranch at the age of 83. “I get tired pretty easy,” he admits. And it’s not just him: American farmers and ranchers are old and they’re getting older, a trend that began at least three decades ago and shows few signs of reversing.

The Census of Agriculture, released every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that the average age of principal operators—the person most responsible for decision-making on farms and ranches—climbed to 58.3 in 2012 (PDF), up from 57.1 in 2007. Back in 1982, by contrast, the average age was 50.5. Data released last week put the average age in six states at 60 or older, and Arizona farmers and ranchers claim the oldest average age in the nation at 61.1.

Of course, the median age of all American workers, 42.4, is climbing beyond the farm as well. Twenty-five percent of the labor force will be 55 or older by 2020 (PDF).

Still, the broader trend pales next to the graying of farmers. Most surprising, perhaps, is that 10 percent of all farmers and ranchers are now 75 or older. A big reason for the trend is that farming is a tough business for young people to break into, given the sky-high costs of prime farmland and necessary equipment such as combines and tractors. From 2007 to 2012, the number of beginning farmers—those with less than 10 years on the farm—declined 20 percent. Of the nation’s 2.1 million principal operators, less than 120,000 were younger than 35. Just last month the Agriculture Department announced that $19 million will be set aside for a program to help rookie farmers and ranchers.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s very hard work farming and ranching,” says Samuel Womble, an extension agent based in Bandera County, Tex., where the average age of ranchers is 64.7. “There’s a lot of younger people who would like to experience that, but unless they have land that has been in their family, it continues to make it pretty challenging.”

Michael Duffy, a longtime chronicler of farm demographics who retired last week as an economist at Iowa State University, says the agricultural census numbers aren’t as dire as they may sound. Many farms are passed down to spouses, children, or other family members. And many others are absorbed by larger farms, a process of consolidation that has been ongoing for decades. Duffy also notes that fewer farmers are needed because of advances in technology. “We have 48-row planters. We have planters that can do a field in a day,” he says. “When you have that kind of technology, you don’t need people.”

There are also opportunities available for younger farmers, like selling directly to consumers at farmers’ markets. “There’s a lot of young people who are quietly making it, not farming in the way everyone else is,” he says.

Operators of very big farms are, on average, younger than those who tend to smaller ones. The average age of an operator with $1 million or more in sales is 55, while the average age of a farmer with $1,000 or less in sales is 60.1, according to the census data.

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