Farmland is valuable because God isn’t making any more of it. And farm folks once wondered if the same wasn’t true about farmers themselves. While the 2017 Census of Agriculture released by the USDA confirms the graying trend in farm ownership, optimism blooms in some respects for younger farmers. The good news of course is that agriculture as an industrial sector is diversifying and in many ways becoming techier, and lots of young farmers are in the fields. But as Americans get hungrier each year, and the Earth’s population heads toward 9 billion in the coming decades, one wonders who and how we’ll be farming generations from now.
But, back to the land at hand.
In 2017, the total number of farm producers in the U.S. numbered 3,399,834, with an average age of 57.5 years, up from an average age of 56.3 in 2012. Thanks, in part, to some changes in how the census tracks producers, we see that the number of principal operators on U.S. farms numbered 2,109,303 in 2012, in 2017 that number had grown to 2,740,453. But it’s not all just a bookkeeping change. This is in keeping with longer life expectancies across the general population, and people are demonstrably staying on the farm longer too. Producers who had been present living on their farm more than 10 years numbered about 2.359 million in 2012, increasing to 2.435 million five years later.
Meanwhile, in terms of younger farmers, the 2012 census reported only 100,947 producers with less than two years present on the farm, and by 2017 this newer farmer number doubled to 201,061. The recent census confirms that 474,198 producers had only been operating the farm less than five years, with 434,076 operating between six and 10, and of course 2,491,560 operating for more than 11 years.
The age pyramid across the board continues to slide upward.
- Under 25: 50,943 (2017), 47,337 (2012)
- 25-34 years: 234,496 (2017), 210,117 (2012)
- 35-44 years: 390,345 (2017), 371,153 (2012)
- 45-54 years: 614,654 (2017), 739,512 (2012)
- 55-64 years: 955,354 (2017), 896,181 (2012)
- 65-74 years: 757,936 (2017), 600,945 (2012)
- 75 years+: 396,106 (2017), 314,829 (2012)
This year, the USDA began tracking a new subgrouping — Young Producers — defined as those operators under 35. The 321,261 young producers in sum operated 240, 121 total farms composed of 114,588,706 acres. Young producers with a farm exceeding 500 acres numbered 39,792, with the median coming in at 10-49 acres numbering 67,163. The younger farmers contained 38,319 tenets as opposed to 129,207 full owners and 72,595 part-owners, with 77,044 operating a farm grossing more than $50,000 annually. Beef cattle producers numbered 77,824 of this group, accounting for the largest segment, with “Other Crop Farming” coming in next with 35,052.
Interestingly enough, the New and Beginning Producers category contained some 21,714 entrepreneurs over the age of 75, while the overwhelming majority doubled as “Young Producers” at 241,452. Still, “New and Beginning Producers” between 25 and 34 years in age brought some 183,185 people into the fields and 195,343 were between the ages 35 and 44.
States leading the way in Young Producers population included Texas with 28,187, Missouri with 16,570, and Iowa with 14,986. The number of farms in those states with a young, principal producer were 15,305 in Texas, covering 6.8 million acres; 9,144 farms in Missouri with 2,380,565 acres; in Iowa 8,532 farms covering 2,468,601 acres.
Questions going forward will almost certainly hinge upon land and ownership transition as the younger farmers have opportunities to purchase or inherit grounds in future decades as the present farmers over 75 years of age move onward to greener celestial pastures. But trends are showing the gray beneath farmers’ caps, fortunately there are still young’uns moving up the ladder to meet the demands going forward.
Brian Boyce is an award-winning writer living on a farm in west-central Indiana. You can see more of his work at www.boycegroupinc.com.