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Just how old is the typical American farmer?

In my job I get to attend lots of meetings about agriculture — that's what I do. In several recent meetings, speakers have alluded to ‘the age of America's farmers.’ I wondered what that means.

A search of Google, or your Internet search vehicle of choice, will likely establish for you that the average chronological age of an American, whose income is derived more than 50 percent from producing, managing, or marketing agricultural products is 56-57 years old. What does that mean? And, is it accurate?

Statistics is something I had to memorize to pass in graduate school and economics, both micro and macro, are foreign languages I don't speak. So, I'm not likely the best candidate to judge the validity or the meaning of the age of the ‘average’ American farmer.

I can, however, make some observations from 30 or so years in the business of communicating agricultural information, and as any reasonable journalist would do, ask lots of questions about it.

Is having the owners of our food supply being experienced and mature a bad thing? If I was going in for open heart surgery, I would choose the 57-year-old surgeon over the 37-year-old surgeon every time — were that the only criteria given me to judge. Nothing against youth, I long for it every day.

I understand that growing crops and raising livestock are a bit different from open-heart surgery, but my point is given the often misplaced vigor and energy of youth (based on personal experience as a youth) versus the sage wisdom of age, it's clear in most things which option I would take.

It would be interesting to know the average age of American farmers who get 100 percent of their income from farming 1,000 acres or more. My bet is it would be a lot lower than 57 years. If for no other reason than inter-generational transfer of farms has gotten to be such a precise science, it is more profitable, and certainly more wise, to transfer ownership of farms to the next generation.

At the recent joint meeting of the North Carolina Corn, Soybean and Small Grain Producers Association, each association presented awards to top growers. I didn't ask anyone's age, and I'd lose money guessing age and weight, but I am pretty sure more of those winners were considerably less than 57 years old than more than 57 years old.

Maybe grain farmers are younger than other farmers. I was surprised at the number of youthful-looking farmers who were recognized for growing 60 and 70 bushels of soybeans and 200 bushels of corn per acre. Obviously, these youthful farmers knew what they were doing. I'm not ready to opt out for the more youthful heart surgeon just yet, but I do feel good about having plenty of soy oil and corn flakes to help me avoid needing a heart surgeon — young or old.

Likewise, at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conference, I had the opportunity to attend several grower panels — most of these guys and girls — sure looked to be less than the 57 years old. They talked about things like variable rate drip and aerial application of micronutrients and global positioning satellites for auto steering and precision planting. All of which left me feeling very comfortable that I would have plenty of cotton shirts and pants for the foreseeable future.

In seeking the age of American farmers, I found a couple of interesting facts about non-American farmers. In South Africa a higher percentage of farmers own Mercedes than do medical doctors. And, in Brazil more farmers (over 65 percent) drive farm and personal vehicles powered by something other than oil-based fuel.

Rather than worrying about the age of the American farmer, would we be better off trying to figure out how to combat the escalating price of everything associated with fossil fuel? Or, figure out how we can better compete in a global market with our farm products, so more of our farmers can own Mercedes?


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