Everyone knows American workers are aging, but farmers are longer in the tooth than workers in almost any other occupation. According to the Labor Department, the median age for farmers and ranchers is 55.9 years, second among tracked occupations only to “motor vehicle operators, other,” who have a median age of 59.2.
It’s not just that farmers are among America’s oldest workers – their average age also has been growing rapidly for about 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture, which recently released new data. This census, which is published every five years, shows that during the last 30 years, the average age of U.S. farmers has grown by nearly eight years, from 50.5 years to 58.3 years.
Note: The USDA implemented a new methodology in 1997, meaning there could be some inconsistencies between data before and after that year.
It’s important to remember that this figure includes only principal operators, meaning any large farms that have one farmer at the helm but other, younger farmers helping out will only have that one farmer at the top represented. Still, the increase reflects that for many years, new, young farmers were tough to come by, one expert says.
From about 1982 through the 2007 census, “folks just really weren't getting into farming that much,” says Bob Young, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
However, he says the fact that the average age in the 2012 census jumped by another 1.2 years surprised him.
“I was a little surprised by the result for this year based on what I'm seeing in the countryside," Young says. "It seems to me that the age demographic is dropping noticeably in the farm meetings I'm attending.”
One thing that might keep some young people out of farming could be the barriers to entry – land prices skyrocketed in recent years, and some equipment, like tractors and combines, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“There are ways that folks can get into it. You can lease some land, you can end up borrowing equipment from somebody,” Young says.
Young also adds that being counted in the census does not require heavy investment – an operation need only have the potential to produce $1,000 worth of agricultural goods in a year to count as a “farm.”
Not only are farmers getting older, but the ones that have been around their current farms the longest appeared to hold on in 2012 while the short-timers dropped off sharply. The number of principal operators who had been on their present farms for less than 10 years fell off by nearly 20 percent between 2007 and 2012. Meanwhile, the number of farmers who had been on their farms for a decade or more grew by nearly 1.2 percent.
Of course, because the number of farmers who have been at their current operations for less than a decade is relatively small, those figures can experience steeper percentage drop-offs. But the degree to which long-tenured farmers outnumber new farmers is itself striking.
As to what may have driven these changes, one USDA statistician says that the decline in beginning farmers has been an ongoing trend, but that the department is still exploring the reasons behind it. For his part, Young says the fact that the census took place in 2012 is significant here.
“One thing we probably ought to keep in mind is this report is based on what happened in 2012, and that was one of the worst drought years we've had in a long time,” he says. Once the USDA comes out with more extensive data on 2012, he says, that could better show why farmer tenure continued to grow.