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Age of US Farmers: Is the Wrong Issue Being Addressed?

  • Carl Zulauf
  • Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics
  • Ohio State University
February 26, 2020
farmdoc daily (10):35
Recommended citation format: Zulauf, C. "Age of US Farmers: Is the Wrong Issue Being Addressed?." farmdoc daily (10):35, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 26, 2020. Permalink

The older age of US farmers remains a topic of interest (Kurtzleben; Stone).  This article thus revisits the farmdoc daily article of October 23, 2013, updating it with 2017 Census of Agriculture data.  It is also a condensed, more focused version of a forthcoming article in the Handbook of Rural Aging.  A key point is that US policy should focus more on helping older farmers remain active, high performers.

Average Age:  As of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, US farmers averaged 57.5, 9.7 years older than the first average age reported in the 1945 Census.  The 2017 average is however 0.8 years younger than in the 2012 Census.  Only the 1978 Census also had an average age that was more than 0.1 years younger than the prior census (50.3 vs. 51.7 in the 1974 Census).  Both declines are associated with multiple-year periods of farm prosperity (1973-1980 and 2007-2013).  (See Data Note 1)

Age Distribution:  In the 2017 Census, almost as many US farmer are 65 and older as younger than 55 (34% vs. 37%)  In contrast, only 14% of self-employed US workers in nonagricultural businesses are 65 or older (US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service (ERS)).

Involvement in Farm Production:  Farmers 65 and older generate 23% of all US farm sales (USDA, ERS).  Based on a 2017 Census question, their involvement in farm production is similar to that of younger farmers:  87% of both age groups are involved in day-to-day operation of a farm, 74% of farmers 65 and older make cropping and land use decisions vs. 75% for younger farmers, and 58% of farmers 65 and older make livestock decisions vs. 64% for younger farmers.

Policy Observations: Various programs exist to aid new entering farmers.  But, the decline in average age associated with periods of farm prosperity suggests a willing supply of new US farmers exist and will enter when farming provides the desired return.  It is thus not evident the US now has or will have a problem replacing its farmers.  This conclusion, plus the observations that (a) US farmers will likely remain older than the average American for the foreseeable future and (b) most older farmers the author knows intend to farm as long as possible, suggest the US should focus more on helping older farmers remain active, highly productive members of a profession they love.  Such a national effort would likely benefit all Americans by improving economic and social performance of US agriculture.

Data Note 1:  Another likely factor in the lower average age in the 2017 Census is a change in survey method.  Attributes were collected for up to 4 operators per farm vs. 3 operators per farm in the 2012 Census.  In the 2017 Census, principal farm operators averaged 58.6 vs. 52.8 for other operators.

References and Data Sources

Kurtzleben, D. “The Rapidly Aging U.S. Farmer.”  U.S. News and World Report. February 24, 2014.  https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/02/24/us-farmers-are-old-and-getting-much-older

Stone, A. “American Farmers are Growing Old, With Spiraling Costs Keeping Out Young.”  National Geographic. September 19, 2014. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140919-aging-american-farmers-agriculture-photos-ngfood/

US Department of Agriculture. Census of Agriculture: 1945-2002. Mann Library, Cornell University. February 2020. http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus/homepage.do;jsessionid=5FC0D4A36B0C8979034F0A0DEA1B1AC2

US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. America’s Diverse Family Farms – 2017 Edition.  Economic Information Bulletin Number 185. December 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=86197

US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Census of Agriculture: 2007, 2012, and 2017. February 2020. https://www.nass.usda.gov/AgCensus/index.php

Zulauf, C. Forthcoming.  “Age of US and Role of Older Farmers.” Handbook of Rural Aging.  L. Kaye, editor.  Routledge, Taylor, and Francis.

Zulauf, C. “Putting the Age of U.S. Farmers in Perspective.” farmdoc daily (3):202, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 23, 2013.

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