Preliminary data released last week from the 2012 Census of Agriculture shows American farmers are getting older, their farms are getting larger and the ranks of younger operators being groomed to take their place are thin.
That’s hardly a surprise. Even the most casual observer during the two years the USDA has been analyzing the numbers could have guessed in general terms what the data would show.
But the numbers are stark, even more so than they were five years ago.
The average age of American farmers and ranchers is 58.3, more than a year older than in the 2007 census. In all, 1.3 million of the 2.1 million farmers are 55 or older, and 701,000 of those are 65 or older.
Only 129,000 operators are under the age of 35. While that’s 11,000 more than 2007, it doesn’t make up for those who have fallen off the roles. There are 95,439 fewer operators of any age than in 2007.
Even as the number of farmers and ranchers is in decline, agriculture colleges are experiencing increased enrollment. Interest in food and agriculture has never been higher. Interest in actual farming is another matter.
The barriers for young people entering production agriculture, particularly at a scale that would support a family, are considerable. Land and equipment are expensive. The only way many can swing it is to take over a family operation.
Often even children raised in farm families and who want a career in agriculture eschew actual farming in favor of the steady paycheck, benefits and predictable hours that come from a support role in marketing, financial services or research.
There continues to be growing interest in small-scale production where the financial barriers — and rewards — are less. That’s encouraging. But more must be done to get young families into production-scale agriculture.
The current trend isn’t sustainable.