Monday, June 9, 2014

Census Drilldown” Beginning Farmers and Ranchers – Part 1

On May 2, USDA released data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture.  The Census of Agriculture has been conducted since 1840 and currently is collected once every five years.  This 2 day series will look at particular themes from the Census that relate to beginning farmers and ranchers.

The new Census data continues to show the aging of the American farm population, with the average age of the American farmer increasing from 57.1 in 2007 to 58.3 in 2012.  What’s more concerning however, is the slow rate at which new farmers are entering agriculture, and the much faster rate at which older farmers are retiring from farming.  On the whole, the U.S. farm population shrunk by roughly 4 percent in the last five years.  This is not all that surprising, given the economic recession and severe weather conditions from the past several years.

However, there were 20 percent fewer beginning farmers (those farmers who have been farming for ten years or less) in 2012 than there were five years earlier.  Our take away?  For starters, that statistic alone signals that recent efforts to reverse the trend of the aging of our farm population have not been as impactful as initially hoped.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has long championed the need for a scaled up investment in the next generation of farmers, and we have had many successes.  The new Census results, however, could not be a clearer signal that our country urgently needs a far more robust national strategy to restore farming as a viable career for the next generation of producers who will step in and continue to farm our country’s land and feed people well into the future.

Below, we break down these Census results further in order to better understand which regions of the country are losing ground fastest with respect to growing the next generation of farmers and which states are leading the way as potential models for how to successfully transition farmland down to a new cohort of young and aspiring farmers.

General Trends
While the farming population in general shrunk by about 4 percent over the past five years, the most significant decrease occurred in farmers who have been farming five years or less.  This pool of very new, beginning farmers shrunk by 23.3 percent since the last Census was released in 2007, whereas those farmers who got started farming ten years ago (between 2003 and 2007) fared slightly better and only decreased by 19.6 percent.  However, even the more “established” beginning farmers shrunk at a much faster rate than their more established farmers who have been farming for more than ten years.

And while there may have been many more farmers who started farming since the last Census, this trend tells us that either not as many farmers chose to pursue agriculture as a career since the last Census, or those who did start farming in the past ten years, and especially over the past five years, did not make it and quit farming temporarily or altogether.

The 2012 Census also had a slightly lower response rate than previous years, and it wouldn’t be surprising if beginning farmers had a lower response rate compared with more established farms that are accustomed to filling out the Census every five years.  In some ways, it is much harder for USDA to track down beginning farmers compared with more established farmers.

Still, there is real concern about the meager numbers of new farmers who are transitioning into agriculture, given that large numbers of their predecessors will be retiring in droves in the coming decades.  The new Census results show that there are now more farmers over the age of 75 than those between the ages of 35 and 44.  From the chart below, it is obvious to see the “lost generation” of farmers under the age of 45 who have chosen to pursue a career other than agriculture.

Despite this gloomy news, the latest Census does show a small increase in the very youngest farmers between the ages of 25 and 34.  While this modest increase is not substantial enough to offset the large droves of farmers reaching retirement age, it is a notable trend that suggests that more and more young people are finding their way into agriculture as a first career option. Groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition have recognized this trend in recent years and have helped develop federal programs, resources and network opportunities for these very young farmers who are coming into agriculture without farm backgrounds and without much capital, but a lot of passion for growing food and taking care of the land.

However, the huge gap between the number of “young” farmers under the age of 44 and those older farmers which make up the vast majority of our country’s farming population suggests more needs to be done to not only recruit more young people into farming, but also those farmers who may be considering agriculture as a second career in their mid-30s to late 40s.

States with the Oldest (and Youngest) Farmers
In general, the new Census data shows that the Plains, Upper Midwest, and a few Northeastern states tend to have younger farmers than the South, Southwest, and Western regions of the country.  Nebraska leads the country as the state with the youngest farmers (55.7 years) and Arizona farmers are the oldest on average (61 years).

Average Age US Farmers
However, there are very localized pockets of both old and young farmers.  Two counties in Colorado (Broomfield and Denver) and two counties in West Virginia (Mingo and McDowell) have some of the oldest farmers in the country with the average farmer being as old as 73.6 years old.  On the opposite spectrum, the counties surrounding New York City (NY), Boston (MA), and Ithaca (NY) have some of the youngest farmers across the nation, including an average age as low as 37.4 years.  This trend points to the growing number of younger farmers settling in urban and peri-urban areas where they are able to take advantage of direct access local markets – including farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and direct to retail sales.
(NSAC blog, May 29, 2014)

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