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U.S. agriculture needs an infusion of young farmers

Every spring, U.S. crops are planted, grown and harvested by farmers who rely on a formidable wealth of experience and knowhow to get the job done. And they are needing every bit of their skill these days, as their joints are getting stiffer, their eyesight fuzzier and the hitch in their giddy up a bit more pronounced.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer continues to rise, increasing roughly one year per census cycle. In the late 1970s, the average age of the principal farm operator was 50. By 2007, it had increased to 57. In another 10-20 years, a huge number of retired U.S. farmers could be spending their afternoons in a fishing boat.

Congress plans to address the aging of the American farmer in the writing of the next farm bill, with the introduction of legislation that would help launch and support the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Tentatively called the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011, this proposal would increase mandatory funding from $75 million to $125 million over the next 5 years to help meet growing demand for the program.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which pushed for the legislation, the bill “addresses many of the barriers that new agriculture entrepreneurs face, such as limited access to land and markets, hyper land price inflation, high input costs and a lack of sufficient support networks.”

As noted in this Farm Press article,, one program would allow a landowner to lease expiring Conservation Reserve Program contracts to a beginning farmer and get two extra years of rental payments.

One contingency is that they have to lease to a beginning farmer who has to practice conservation-based, sustainable production methods. One would hope that the profitability of the young farmer is a big part of the definition of sustainability.

On a positive note, the census of agriculture showed that the total number of principal operators increased from 2002 by 4 percent, and that the majority of farm operators are still between 45 and 64.

But the census also shows a significant difference in the number of farmers at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. In 2007, there were 655,000 operators 65 and older and 289,999 operators 75 years and older. There are only 54,147 operators under the age of 25.

That’s troublesome, especially when you consider that agricultural expertise is derived in large part from the exchange of information between generations of farmers. Obviously, our pool of young, fresh, innovative minds is alarmingly low. Older farmers won’t be punching the clock forever. U.S. agriculture needs an infusion of young farmers.  

TAGS: Legislative
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