Farming Needs A Few Good Young People

Fodder for Thought

Agriculture's aging "crisis" is brighter than USDA's Deputy Secretary recently implied.

Published on: April 19, 2012

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan’s latest statement about the ‘epidemic of aging farmers sweeping across America’s farmland’ is making headlines across the country

While I think it is important to note there has been a significant increase in aging farmers, I feel it’s more vital for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other groups to focus on an emphasis to give young, would-be farmers the necessary skills and resources to be successful in production agriculture.

Oddly enough, less than 6 months ago this same agency was touting the complete opposite message that’s making headlines this month, referencing a growing interest of young people in farming. They quoted an increased enrollment in agricultural programs at land grant universities and a growing interest in farmer-training programs.

A USDA senior economist said, “People are looking at farm income, especially the increase in asset values, and seeing a really positive story about our economy. Young people are viewing agriculture as a great opportunity and saying they want to be a part of it.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently beginning work on its 2012 farm census, which will hopefully be completed later this year. Nationally, the latest agricultural census figures show the fastest-growing group of farmers and ranchers are those over age 65. Yes, there’s a possibility that this number could be even higher after the 2012 census results come back but I don’t think the situation is as dire as it seems.

Americans are living longer for a number of reasons, like improved healthcare and nutrition. This allows many older farmers to continue to do the job they love so much longer than they would have 50 years ago. Because of this, it is logical the national average age of the farmer would also become older as the higher ages would skew the mean. This is a simple fact of statistics. Outliers will always throw off an average.

In addition, as the use of technology in farming increases and the efficiency of agricultural production has improved, fewer farmers are required to produce the food we need. This can be seen in the fact that one farmer today feeds around 155 people, while a farmer in 1960 was only capable of feeding about 26 people. With that fact in mind it would make sense that less young people would seek employment in agricultural production, because the reality is we do not need as many people to get the job done anymore.

That in no way however means that there aren’t any opportunities in agriculture for young people. There are plenty. USDA predicts record profits for farmers as a whole this year. America will always need food. Agriculture is as necessary as the air we breathe. Without it, civilization ceases to exist.

The future is bright for U.S. agriculture and I have only a positive outlook for the future of this great industry and people involved in it. Though the agriculture of the future may not look like what you see today, it will be alive and strong.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    good piece! i've been thinking about that a long time. I've got farmers in their late 70s still working! and their grandsons are getting better educated, often starting later, with more outside experience. and on the fringes, so many new people entering in specialty enterprises, many with no experience. yes virginia, agriculture does have a future!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would not consider getting older an epidemic, that might imply there needs to be a "cure" :) Epidemic refers to (most times, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemic ) a disease state being an issue in the population. Getting older is not necessarily a "disease" (though many have sought cures). I think the story is mainly to raise attention to something that has been known since the baby boom was observed in the 1970's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_boomer ). Aging farmers is less something that has "just happened" and more of something that has slowly been "sneaking" up on the US as a whole. You could say the same thing for the job sector/economy at large. Where this will be felt more so will be when a big chunk of the baby boom generation (born 1946 -1964, or in today's view, ages 66 to 48) hits retirement age, is able to draw Social Security, use Mediacare, and start to think about not working. We all know aging occurs, we have metrics (census) in place, and we know what could happen. The "epidemic" is not in the aging but in the "lack of action". John Blue @TruffleMedia

  3. Anonymous says:

    I do agree that the older average age of people does help the fact that older farmers can continue in this great industry longer, but the point is that they shouldn't have to do this! I believe that most of these men and women have put in their fair share of work, and should have to carry the torch any longer if they don't want to. I believe that as another poster stated "We as young people should 'earn' our way"! But at the same time older farmers should want to help these young farmers learn and grow in the industry in order to keep the American farmers and ranchers going! Look, I am a 26 year old guy that loves the industry, and wake up everyday and thank God for putting me in an agriculture based family, but that does not mean that I have been able to do everything that I want to in the cattle industry. My family's herd has been very up and down over the years, and I personally believe that it was bad decisions on my part. I think that there are ways that the agriculture community can help itself grow and prosper well into the future. We all just need to work together and support each other and any new comers!

  4. Anonymous says:

    It is not up to USDA or any other entity to "give" skills or resourses. You youngsters need to learn the meaning of the word "earn". That way you will be hardened off and will be able to make it and keep it. I started my operation from scratch. No help from beginning farmer programs. Today I am debt free and run one of the largest cattle operation in my county. When you go to the government for help, remember one thing....you are in THEIR program, not your own. To say you need these programs is marxism