Next Generation Farming

Is the Rising Age of Farmers A Bad Thing?

USDA reports the average age of beginning farmers is 49 years old.

The trend of shrinking numbers of young farmers hasn't changed despite all the government's efforts to help beginning farmers get established.

According to USDA-ERS's latest report on beginning farmers and ranchers, the share of principle operators with less than 10 years of experience fell to 22% in 2011, down from 26% in the 2007 Census of Agriculture and 38 percent in 1982.

But of all the beginning farmers and ranchers – defined as principle operators with less than 10 years of experience – only 14% were under 35 years old. The average age was 49 with nearly half being 35 to 49 years old. The remaining 37% of beginning farmers were 50 or older. The national average of all farmers and ranchers, meanwhile, was 60.

Bearing in mind that only 5% of all farmers and ranchers were under the age of 35 in the 2007 Census, the number of young farmers and ranchers is small and getting smaller.

This isn't a huge surprise to anyone in agriculture considering the massive start-up costs involved with farming and ranching. With extraordinary machinery costs and the limited number of acres that a beginning farmer can spread those costs across to gain the efficiencies of scale that established farmers enjoy, the economic reward of coming back to farm isn't enticing. The average farm income of beginning farm households in 2011 was $1,902, compared to $18,119 for established farms.

The message from the market to young aspiring farmers is clear: Don't come back to farm until you've made your money somewhere else. Or, work for another farmer until you've accumulated enough wealth to start off on your own. It's no surprise, then, that the average age of beginning farmers is nearing 50 years old.

Should we be alarmed at the shrinking number of young farmers? We've all heard concerns over the continually rising age in agriculture and how it may threaten the future viability of farming and ranching in the U.S.

Considering farming is an entrepreneurial activity, though, the rising age of farmers might not be such a bad thing. Countless studies reveal that older entrepreneurs are more successful at starting and running businesses than younger entrepreneurs.

According to Forbes magazine, 64% of the start-up companies that survived the 2008 recession were headed by entrepreneurs over 45-years-old.

The researchers who conducted the study at the Kauffman Ewing Institute concluded that "previous industry experience and start-up experience had less impact on firm survival prospects than did owner age."

Is farming any different? Considering the risk and capital involved in production agriculture today, age might be a pre-requisite for surviving the tough times. With the ongoing drought and the threat of an agricultural "bubble" looming, an older farm population might just be precisely what agriculture needs.

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