Ag Census shows an industry, way of life, that's changing
By Eric Mortenson
ALBANY, Ore. — He noticed it first thing and had to laugh. The 2012 Census of Agriculture showed the average age of American farmers has risen to 58.3 years old. Doug Krahmer, a blueberry grower, turned 58 in January.
“This year, oh crap, I'm at the median age,” he says with a chuckle. “I'm no longer one of the young guys.”
Statistics tell only part of the story, of course. Geography, climate, crop or livestock differences, experience, farming methods and the twists of the market all determine how agriculture is practiced across the country. But in broad strokes, Krahmer fits the census profile of an American farmer: 58, white, male, experienced and successful.
And, certainly in the case of Krahmer and other farmers throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, thinking hard about what comes next. Sitting still isn't an option.
“I've never been under the misconception that you could stay a smaller size and continue to be viable,” Krahmer says. “I've always told my workers and my kids, if we're not growing we're dying. It continues to be true, whether we like it or not.”
Fewer, bigger farms
More detailed census information will come in May, but the preliminary data show continuing themes. The number of farms continues to drop, falling to 2.1 million nationally in 2012. That's nearly 100,000 fewer farms than were reported in the 2007 Census. But the amount of farmland acreage dipped by less than 1 percent nationally and the average farm size increased to 434 acres, compared to 418 acres in 2007. That indicates farmers are consolidating and picking up land from people who leave the profession.
The five years between census reports were good ones for many farmers. With prices high, the market value of U.S. agricultural products topped $394 billion in 2012, nearly $100 billion more than in 2007. The average market value produced per farm jumped to $187,093 — almost $53,000 more than in 2007.
California led the way. With only 3.6 percent of the nation's farms, it accounts for about 11 percent of the nation's agricultural production, California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Dave Kranz said in an email. At the same time, the average California farm, at 328 acres, is 24 percent smaller than the national average, he said.
“That reflects the unusual diversity of crops and growing areas in California, and the efficiency of California farmers and ranchers in producing food and farm products,” Kranz said.
The census also shows national trends don't always hold at the state level. Nationally, crop sales value exceeded livestock sales for only the second time, the first being 1974. But the reverse was true in Idaho, where sales of livestock products, especially milk, predominate, said University of Idaho Extension economist Garth Taylor. As recently as 2013, one-third of Idaho's farm gate cash receipts were milk checks to dairy farmers, Taylor said.
Idaho also bucked the trend by adding to its amount of farmland, increasing to 11.7 million acres from 11.5 million in 2007.
In Washington, the market value of ag products soared almost 34 percent to $9.1 billion. While the number of farms fell, as in other states, the biggest drop came among farms where the principal operator's primary occupation was something other than farming.
“We didn't lose as many of those who are full-time farmers,” said Christopher Mertz, director of the Northwest regional office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Olympia, Wash.
Future of farming
The face of farming is changing, as the number of Hispanic, Asian and African American farmers jumped significantly in the 2012 Census. But the average age of farmers continues to increase — it's 60.1 in California, among the highest nationally — and that poses an ongoing succession issue. More than 1.3 million American farmers, well over half the country's producers, are in the 55- to 75-year-old age range or older.
To some, that's not a critical issue. “When I came out of school, the same thought process was going on, and that was 30 years ago,” said Bruce Lindauer, 52, a third-generation grower with about 500 acres of walnuts, pistachios and plums for prunes in Los Molinos, Calif.
“Everyone asks about the future of farming,” he said. “It really goes back to the person. If they've got the inclination (to keep their farm going), they're going to find a way to do it.”
In his case, he'd like to see his children take over the business someday. But “I don't want to twist their arm,” he said.
It's a tough profession for the young to crack. Nationally, there are more than twice as many farmers age 75 and above as there are age 34 and below.
“It's almost impossible for a young guy to get started,” said Duane Hubbard, who grows hay, corn, wheat and beans on 500 acres near Ephrata, Wash. “I have two sons. Both want to farm and we can't pick up the acres. They are held by farms 10 times our size.
“The small are getting smaller,” Hubbard said. “That's what's happening in our area. I don't want to be whining, but it's reality.”
The question of who takes over the farm is one that unsettles families. The Austin Family Business Center at Oregon State University is planning two workshops this year on farm succession, director Sherri Noxel said.
“We want to pull in the 58-year-olds,” she said, referring to the average farmer age. “If they are like other businesses we work with, 80 percent want (the farm) to stay in the family, but only 29 percent build a succession plan.”
Krahmer, the Oregon blueberry grower, acknowledges he fits that profile, too. One daughter, Crystal Gonzalez, works in banking, but his other two children — Zach Krahmer and Annie Krahmer — have come back into the business. Doug Krahmer says he has a succession plan in his head but has yet to commit it to paper.
In the past five years he's refocused the family business, giving up custom farming work that diverted resources and dropping some of the other crops he grew on the side. Now he grows 521 acres of blueberries and one acre of blackberries on scattered sites in the Albany, St. Paul and Clatskanie areas.
His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all farmed in Oregon, a legacy dating to 1877. Today, Krahmer has a statewide leadership role to fill as a member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture.
Blueberries have done well, but decisions continue to churn. Should he strive for vertical integration, and do his own processing and packing? He's passed for now on exporting fresh berries to South Korea as some growers do, but keeps an eye on it. Varietal and marketing choices come and go, and right now he's got nearly three dozen pruners at work, shaping the woody blueberry bushes for the coming crop.
“You can't sit stagnant very long in this business,” he says, and he smiles at an offered description: You have to be quick on your feet but still maintain a long view. “Yep, yep,” he says.
“I wouldn't say I'm the best grower in the world, but it's what I like to do.”
And that's something the census doesn't measure.
Capital Press staff writers Dan Wheat, Tim Hearden and Carol Ryan Dumas contributed to this story.