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America Running Out of Farmers?

Young Farmers Face New Challenges

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A young Oklahoman learns to drive the family farm's combine.

A young Oklahoman learns to drive the family farm's combine.

Photo by: Jane Talbot-Wyrick
Updated June 01, 2012

From nuclear war to global economic failure or the total depletion of world oil supplies, a growing number of Americans are prepping for doomsday. But perhaps more likely than any of those dire scenarios, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the day when America runs out of farmers.

In just the five years from 2002 to 2007, the percentage of American farmers and ranchers 65-years-old and older grew by 22%, while the percentage of farmers 45 and under fell by 14%, according to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture: Farmers by Age. For each American farmer younger than 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to the USDA.

Also See: USDA Releases 2011 Thesaurus of Agriculture

Since 1987, the average age of America's principal farm operators has increased from 50.3 to nearly 52 years in 2007. And while the majority of principal farmers are between 45 and 64, the fastest growing group of principal farmers is those 65 years and older. In other words, as farmers retire or die farming, not enough new farmers are taking their places.

Why is This Important?

Because according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, each American farmer feeds an all-time high 155 people every year.

Note that "farmers" includes both farmers and ranchers -- people who are pretty important because they grow most of the things we eat. According to the USDA, only about 4% of all grains and meat, and 3% of all dairy products consumed in the United States annually are imported from other countries.

The vast majority of food consumed by Americans is - for now -- produced by American farmers and ranchers. And if you think feeding your car gasoline made from imported oil is expensive, imagine having to feed your family nothing but imported foods.

In an April 12, 2012 phone interview with the Associated Press, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan warned, "If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don't know where to begin to talk about the woes."

Finding Land to Farm Not Easy

Let's say you are a young person who wants to become a farmer. First, you need some land to farm, which unless you inherit it, can be very hard to find and buy these days.

Indeed, failure to replace retiring farmers is contributing to turning America's once-abundant farmable land into an expensive and rapidly vanishing commodity.

"If new young farmers do not step forward to replace older retiring farmers, ownership of land and other farm assets may be concentrated into fewer, ever-larger operations," wrote the USDA's Fred Gale in his paper, America's Aging Farmers: Who Will Take Their Place?

In testimony given on March 7, 2012, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry that new farmers now struggle to get credit and resources needed to buy land and equipment. "Access to land is a major challenge," said Vilsack. "The average cost of farmland has doubled nationally over the last decade."

Just Ask the Famers

But while Sec. Vilsack has always been a strong and effective advocate for agriculture and farmers, he has spent his life as a lawyer and bureaucrat. What do real farmers have to say?

Larry and Jane Wyrick, owners and operators of a 2,000 acre farm in northeast Oklahoma, a state in which 35% of all farmers are 65 or older, agreed with Sec. Vilsack.

"Yes, just trying to get your hands on farmland is a challenge," said Larry Wyrick. "Farmland is one area in real estate that has been appreciating in value. Investors have jumped in too, seeing it is appreciating compared to other areas of real estate that have not been such good investments for the last few years."

Having once lived in California's agriculturally-blessed Sacramento Valley, Jane-Talbot Wyrick witnessed first-hand the loss of potential farmland to developers and speculators hoping to take advantage of its rising value. "And then you look at the Central Valley of CA ... I would cringe when I would see developers building on agricultural land," she said. "Once that land is lost, it's gone forever and is one more factor that could contribute to the future need to import food."

Reacting to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture: Farmers by Age, Larry Wyrick noted that most existing farmers and ranchers strive to expand their operations by accumulating more land and bigger, better equipment. Modern farm equipment allows farmers to work more land with fewer employees, observed Wyrick, who runs his 2,000 acre farm - almost 5-times larger than the U.S. average -- with just one part-time paid employee. "The availability of modern equipment has reduced the amount of jobs in farming, and that is just one more piece to the puzzle of why younger people may not be getting into farming," he said.

On March 8, 2012, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) announced that results from its 20th annual Young Farmers & Ranchers (YF&R) program survey showed that 21% of young farmers considered having to deal with government regulations and "red tape" as their top concern, with an equal 21% citing securing enough land to grow crops and raise livestock as their biggest challenges.

"Most young farmers and ranchers would like to stay on the farm or ranch their entire lives," said Glen Cope, AFBF national YF&R committee chair and a Missouri beef cattle rancher in a press release. "One of the biggest challenges many of us have faced is getting enough capital to start farming. And then, once we are established, regulatory costs can be the wildcard that determines whether we can be successful enough to stay on the land."

The Government is Trying to Help

That's what it's there for, right? Using funds from the 2008 Farm Bill, the USDA created the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to provide beginning U.S. farmers, ranchers and their families with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to succeed by making informed decisions for their operations.

In 2009 alone, 29 USDA-funded BFRDP projects at organizations around the country provided training for more than 5,000 beginning farmers and ranchers. In 2010, 40 projects were funded. Together the 69 projects are located in 40 states and serve beginning farmers and ranchers from coast to coast.

Also See: Isolated US Farmers to Get Some Government Help

And in an unusual moment of bureaucratic reason, the Department of Labor withdrew its proposed federal regulations that would have imposed drastic restrictions on young people working on family farms, an American tradition dating back to colonial days.

The decision drew praise from U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa who opposed the regulations and defended the opportunity for kids to work on their own family, or a neighbor's farm as a traditional and valuable part of American farming.

"It's good the Labor Department rethought the ridiculous regulations it was going to stick on farmers and their families," said Sen. Grassley in a press release. "It would have been devastating to farm families across the country. Much of rural America was built on families helping families, neighbors helping neighbors. To even propose such regulations defies common sense, and shows a real lack of understanding as to how the family farm works. I'm glad the Obama administration came to its senses."

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