The aging U.S. farmer crisis is overstated and doesn’t match the numbers. Sure, farmers are getting older, but so is the rest of the American workforce. As little as 0.5 percent of farmers are under the age of 25, and it’s often argued that half of all farmland will change hands in the next 20 years, but panic over the graying of U.S. agriculture is without merit — at least that’s the opinion of economist Carl Zulauf, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, Ohio State.
Zulauf has gleaned labor information from USDA census data (1945-2007) and DOL data (1980-2010) to reach a conclusion that is markedly different from current consensus: “In short, putting the age of farmers in perspective suggests the U.S. will likely have little problem replacing its aging farmer population.”
How does Zulauf build his case?
In Putting the Age of U.S. Farmers in Perspective, he acknowledges that the age of farmers has increased 17 percent, or 8.4 years, from 1945 to 2007. (In that same 62-year span, farmers aged 65+ have jumped from 14 percent in 1945 to 30 percent in 2007.) Taken alone, the numbers are stark, but taken as a whole with general U.S. labor force stats, the picture changes.
From OSU: “However, since 1980, when data on the age of the labor force became available, the average age of the U.S. labor force increased by 7.1 years, from 34.6 to 41.7. During the same time period, the average age of U.S. farmers has increased by 7.1 years (from 50.5 to 57.1). Thus, each population has aged in concert with one another, Zulauf said.”
Zulauf points out a key decline (and the only decline) in average farmer age took place from the mid- to late-1970s — paralleling growth in agriculture. Will that age decline repeat itself with current agriculture prosperity? Zulauf believes it will: “U.S. farmers are aging, but their aging mirrors the U.S. labor force. The U.S. farmer population is older than the U.S. labor force, but this has been true since 1980 and likely much earlier. The older age of farmers is consistent with farming being capital intensive. It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete in U.S.‐style farming, either through inheritance or savings or both. While much is written about the need to replace the aging U.S. farmer population, the 1970 period of farm prosperity suggest the current period of prosperity will lead to an influx of younger farmers, sons and daughters of existing farmers and from non‐farm backgrounds. This influx will likely occur over a number of years and its magnitude will depend on the staying power of the current farm prosperity.”
Time will tell……
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