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Will there be enough farmers in the future to feed America?

Where have all the farmers gone?

by Sarah Fentem
Nov 01, 2012


Sarah Fentem/MEDILL

The average age of the farm operator is steadily rising.

Jessica Pintens grew up on a farm in Hillsdale, Wisconsin, and was active in her local 4H Club. As a child considered she going into farming like the rest of her family. As she became older, though, her enthusiasm for working the land began to fade as she saw the punishing realities her relatives faced.

“I think money and grueling work are two of the main reasons kids change their mind about farming,” she said. “They watch their parents work, night and day, with no vacation time, doing extremely laborious work.” Pintens gave up her farming ambitions, and currently is an education major at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Jessica’s story isn’t rare. Today’s young people, statistics show, simply aren’t considering agriculture when choosing a career path.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the latest available, the age of farmers is steadily increasing--about a year every census cycle. Farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing age group, and currently comprise 30 percent of all operators. The "The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution," According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite what many believe, family farms still comprise the vast majority of all American farming operations. According to the census, "non-family farms", or corporate farms, account for only 2 percent of all U.S. farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reports only 21 percent of family farms met the definition of a "beginning farm"--a farm that is operated by a person completely new to farming or someone who has not operated a ranch for 10 or more years.

Furthermore, not all beginning farmers are young--in fact, one-third of them are older than 55.

It’s another sign that the profession is having difficulty attracting new blood. Mary Ahearn, an economist for the USDA, puts it succinctly: "We have fewer young people, and people are getting older."

Ahearn suggests a few possible reasons for the phenomenon. First, the USDA defines a farm as "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold", or--and here's the catch--any place which has the potential to produce $1,000 in sales. Because of this extremely loose definition of a farm, the numbers could be skewed by so-called "retirement farms" that aren’t being used to grow crops or raise animals.

"One reason for the advanced age structure of farmers is the farm's status as the family home," the report said, noting more than 20 percent of farm operators report they are retired. Ahearn adds, "When a person becomes 65, when a person would retire, you might still be classified as being in farming, when really you're just puttering around."

In addition, fewer young people are being drawn in to the profession despite the growing number of farm-to-table restaurants and the increasing demand for organic produce.

"Despite the press about how young people are excited [about farming], that's not showing up in the numbers yet," Ahearn said.

The lack of younger beginning farmers worries Amy Bacigalupo, who works for the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit that has spawned the nationwide "Farm Beginnings Program". "Farm Beginnings" is an agricultural training model that acts as a yearlong "farm college" for people new to farming, bringing them together with experienced farmers.

Bacigalupo said that young farmers will offer rural America "a chance to get its voice back."

"In terms of rural issues, we can potentially have more farmers on the land invested in their communities and wanting to carry out a vision and future for rural communities" she said.

If the aging trend continues, Bacigalupo says the effects on farming and agribusiness could be disastrous.

"We'll see the land not being treated as well, consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, and that means the land is less well taken care of," she said. "There’s less thought taken into conservation, improving water quality--resources we all benefit from having."

There are bright spots on the farming horizon, though. Of the 622 graduates of the Minnesota Farm Beginnings, most are 18-45 years old, younger than the average farm operator, Bacigalupo says In Chicago, the High School for Agricultural Sciences, a magnet school that offers learning tracks such as animal science, agricultural finance and agricultural mechanics, fielded more than 3,000 applications for the 180 spots in its incoming class.

While the school focuses on preparing students for post-farm agricultural work, there's no doubt the farm-in-a-city nature of the school is appealing to young people.

"All our electives are agricultural courses," said Sheila Fowler, the school's Agriculture Department chair. "We have horses, cows, pigs and chickens in a barn for the students to get hands-on experience." In addition to livestock, the school grows vegetables on its considerable acreage and even houses beehives.

The interest is not only encouraging, it is crucial.

"Movement as a whole has to be gained," said Bacigalupo. "And that necessarily means young people."