Productivity personified.

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Young Farmers Don't Need Taxpayers' Help

James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View. He was Wall Street news team leader at Bloomberg News and senior editor for Bloomberg Markets magazine. He previously reported on banking for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer.
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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recites the same lament when he is asked to size up the state of American farming. Things are dandy, but a crisis is looming because farmers are old and getting older all the time. 

He usually ends with a question about who will replace them, as he did again last week at a speech at the annual James Beard Foundation Food Conference.

 Yes, farmers are pretty old -- about 15 years older than the average U.S. worker. 

But there is no demographic crisis in farming. And even if there were, it's doubtful that federal policies could do much to reverse the rising age of the nation's farmers, who currently make up about 2 percent of the U.S. workforce.

 If anything, the evidence suggests that the nation has more than enough farmers already.  

To understand why, look at how the efficiency tear in U.S. agriculture that began at the end of World War II is continuing. 

Today, one farmer produces enough to feed 155 people, up from a little more than 100 people in 1980. This is a tribute to better land management, improved fertilizers and pesticides, and technology that includes crops genetically modified to resist disease and GPS systems to help guide tractors and combines. 

Unless one buys into Malthusianism, there's every reason to believe that farm productivity will keep improving and that demand for farmers will shrink.

Yet warnings about a dearth of young farmers have been sounded for as long as agriculture has organized to represent its interests. As writer Stewart Truelsen recounted earlier this year on the American Farm Bureau Federation's Voice of Agriculture website:

The fear of not having enough farmers and ranchers has been around as long as the first county Farm Bureau, founded a little over a hundred years ago in Broome County, New York. The concern back then was that too many young men were leaving the hard life of farming to seek gainful employment in the big cities. Farm Bureau was formed out of a desire to make farming more socially and financially rewarding.

The exodus from farms and ranches continued, however, but became far less worrisome because of mechanization and the tremendous increase in farm productivity. In fact, the pendulum swung the other way. During much of the 20th century there were too many people trying to make a living from farming, and too much land was in production. 

And there are already plenty of incentives, including $20 billion in annual federal subsidies that help push average yearly farm incomes to more than $92,000. 

Vilsack is a big proponent of the Agriculture Department's programs to encourage young people to take up farming, the most important of which allocates about $1 billion a year in credits or guarantees to young farmers for land purchases. 

But the broader forces of technology and demography are hard to resist, even if we wanted to change them. And, on the whole, American farmers are hardly a struggling group that needs U.S. taxpayer help to survive. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net