Farmers and ranchers in the U.S. are growing increasingly older as barriers to entry into agriculture set up obstacles for young people to begin farming and ranching operations, according to the April and May issues of the Food, Nutrition & Science report.
Citing data from the U.S. Economic Research Service, the report noted that the average age of farm operators increased from 50 years in 1978 to 57 years in 2007 and that farmers who are 55 years old or older account for 62% of all farms.
Because of this, the USDA provides special assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers through programs such as the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University, the report said.
The coordinator of the program, Dr. Gary Stephenson, said starting up a farm is like starting up any business, requiring capital and knowledge, or training. However, farmland also is transferred from generation to generation, he said, and this transfer will be an important process in the coming decades to keep young people involved in agriculture.
It represents an opportunity to expand and strengthen medium- and small-sized farms to check the long-term trend toward fewer but larger operations and prevent the conversion of farmland into development. Having generations prepared to take over farmland will keep that land in the production of crops and livestock "instead of condos," he said in the report.
Of course, farmers need to be able to make a good living on their farms and ranches, he said.
Beginning farmers and ranchers face two difficult obstacles, the report said: high start-up costs and lack of available land to buy or rent, with the average cost of an acre of farmland now in excess of $2,300. Accordingly, many young farmers need to start small and "bootstrap" their way into larger operations, the report said.
On average, beginning farmers have 174 acres compared with established farms that are 461 acres in size, the report said.
The Food, Nutrition & Science report is a free, monthly newsletter with articles relating to farmers, food manufacturers, retailers, nutritionists, educators and others and is published by food industry analyst Phil Lembert. It can be accessed at www.foodnutritionscience.com.