On average, U.S. farmers are aging, but a quarter of them are newcomers

One-third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are over the age of 65, long regarded as retirement age, and nearly a million more of them are within a decade of that milestone, according to new USDA data. For decades, the aging U.S. farmer has been a cause for concern, expressed in this question: Who will feed America in the future? Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue saw encouraging news in the Census of Agriculture, which was released on Thursday.

Some 27 percent of farmers are categorized as new and beginning producers, with 10 years or less of experience in agriculture. Perdue said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see the figure. “That means a number of young people are coming back to the farm.”

In releasing the results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the USDA said U.S. agriculture is increasingly divided into two groups: a large number of small farms that produce a small part of the nation’s food, fiber, and livestock, and a small number — fewer than 80,000 — of big operations that generate two-thirds of farm production. The number of medium-sized farms is shrinking.

There are 2.04 million farms in the country, down 67,000 from 2012, according to the 2017 census, which attempted to contact every producer. The Census of Agriculture began in 1840 in conjunction with the decennial U.S. census, and is now conducted every five years by the USDA. Farm numbers have ranged from 2 to 2.2 million since 1997. For the ag census, a farm is defined as a place that produced or sold $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a year.

For four decades, the average age of farmers has been on the rise. It was 50.3 years for the “principal operator” in the 1978 census, 53.3 years in 1992, 57.1 years in 2007, 58.3 years in 2012, and now is 59.4 years. By contrast, the average age of new and beginning farmers is 46.3 years, says the 2017 census. Their farms “tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production,” said the USDA. The average farm for new and beginning producers is 120 acres smaller than the U.S. average farm size of 441 acres.

Young producers — age 35 or younger — account for 9 percent of farmers, but their operations and production are larger than the U.S. average.

More farms reported multiple producers in the 2017 census because the USDA revised its demographic questions to better track the people involved in decision-making on the farm. The number of women listed as producers soared by 27 percent, while the total number of producers rose by 3.7 percent. Some analysts argued for years that the USDA closely followed only principal operators, traditionally male, while overlooking the role of spouses and the younger generation.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the 2017 census showed that agricultural consolidation is driving medium-sized family farms out of business and concentrating wealth among large operators. “If we don’t invest in beginning farmers and the advancement of our family farms, and if we don’t put checks on increasing consolidation in agriculture, we’re going to be at risk of losing the ag of the middle entirely,” said Juli Obudzinski, NSAC policy director. “If we’re going to reverse these trends, we need to focus on programs and policies — beginning farmer and rancher programs, local and organic agriculture, and farmer-driven research, to name a few — that help our family farmers thrive, not just survive.”

Perdue said the shift to larger farms reflected economies of scale. “Farmers have had to survive, to get bigger,” he said, because smaller farms do not generate enough production volume for farmers to make a living on the thin margins common in agriculture.

The number of U.S. farms has declined for generations. The development of hybrid seeds and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and the mechanization of labor have increased productivity greatly while reducing the number of people needed on the farm. Agriculture is a capital-intensive, cash-illiquid business in the United States.

The Census of Agriculture is available here.