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.