Where are Beginning Farmers Farming?
Interestingly, there is not necessarily a strong correlation between states with the youngest (or oldest) farmers, and what percentage of the state’s farming population is new to agriculture and considered a “beginning farmer” by USDA definitions.
Since the USDA definition of “beginning farmers” does not have an age requirement and only refers to farmers who have been farming for ten years or less, the Census data reveals that farmers enter into, and retire from, agriculture at different stages in their lives depending on where they live and where they farm.
For example, Texas has one of the oldest farming populations, but also has the greatest number of beginning farmers and one of the highest percentages of beginning farmers compared to other states. In contrast, Minnesota farmers are some of the youngest on average when compared to other states, but only 20 percent of the state’s farmers have been farming for less than 10 years.
What this means is that farmers in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Indiana are getting started in agriculture earlier in life but may not be farming as long as farmers in the South, Southwest, and West. It may also be the case that there is more succession planning in Midwestern and Great Plains states where the family farm is successfully passed down to the next generation, and that this transition of land is not happening to the same extent in other parts of the country. Finally, it could be that some farmers are relocating or retiring to states like California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to pursue farming as a second or post-retirement career.
The top states with the greatest number of beginning farmers roughly follow those states with the most total farmers, with Texas having the most new farmers by far with over 60,000 beginning farmers. There are several states in the Plains, Midwest and Appalachian regions which have higher numbers of beginning farmers than other parts of the country. California is the only state outside these regions that falls into the top ten states with greatest numbers of new farmers, and it also has one of the highest proportionate shares of its farming population being new to agriculture (36 percent compared to the national average of 29 percent). Beginning farmers in Iowa on the other hand are significantly more outnumbered by more established farmers, with only 22 percent of its farmers being considered beginning farmers. Minnesota is the only state that is in both in the top 10 states for total number of farms but not in the top 10 for number of beginning farmers.
Similarly, the states with the fewest number of beginning farmers are also the states with the fewest number of total farmers and include mainly states in the Northeast, Alaska and Hawaii. However, these same states have some of the highest concentrations of beginning farmers with over half of Alaska’s farming population having been farming for ten years or less.
Which States are Attracting (and Losing) Beginning Farmers?
The Census data also reveals some interesting trends in terms of which states are doing a better job than others in recruiting new farmers and supporting their successful transition into agriculture.
In total, only nine states increased the number of farmers entering agriculture in the past five years compared to the previous Census. New England is one region that although it has a relatively small farming population, has been successful in growing new farmers over the past ten years. Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont lead the region with the biggest growth in beginning farmers. Interestingly, neighboring states like New Jersey lost a significant number of farmers, perhaps due to development pressure or severe flood events in recent years. And although New York State did see its beginning farmer population decrease, the loss was not as drastic as other parts of the region, perhaps due to the resurgence of local agriculture and small farms in the Hudson Valley and other regions across the state.
Nebraska is the only state in America’s heartland that saw their new farmer population increase. Nebraskan beginning farmers increased by 9.8 percent over the past five years, compared with significant losses in neighboring states including 20 percent loss in Colorado, 15 percent loss in Kansas, 26 percent loss in Missouri, and 15 percent loss in Iowa. Part of this trend may be due to the fact that Nebraska has many state resources available for beginning farmers – including state tax incentives to transfer land to new farmers, a state land-link program that helps connects beginning farmers with retiring landowners, and a new farmer training program targeting veteran farmers and ranchers. Organizations like the Center for Rural Affairs, based in Lyons, NE, have also been at the forefront of some of these innovative models for decades.
New Mexico posted a sizable gain in new farmers, and there were a few other states in the West that saw their new farmer populations increase, including Utah, Nevada, and Alaska, although their total farming populations are relatively small.
In general, Southern states witnessed the most significant loss of new farmers entering agriculture over the past five years, with Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama experiencing the greatest decline.
So what explains the overall decrease in the number of beginning farmers in almost every state across the country? Some of these new farmers that started farming in the past ten years would also have been counted in the previous Census. What this data represents is that in most states, fewer farmers entered agriculture between 2008 and 2012 than they did between 1998 and 2002. It may also be the case that some of the new farmers who started farming between 2003 and 2007 were not able to maintain viable farm operations and left farming before the 2012 Census was conducted. There are many reasons why a new farm fails, and considering the Great Economic Recession and several severe droughts and floods over the past five years, these may be some of the contributing factors to the loss of these new farms.
It is clear that more needs to be done to grow the next generation of producers. The 2014 Farm Bill that was signed into law earlier this year includes many programs and gives USDA additional tools to help support, train, and provide technical assistance to new farmers. However, more funding for new farmer training programs are urgently needed. Additional state and federal tax incentives to incentivize landowners to sell their farmland to a young farmer are urgently needed. New, innovative models to help new farmers finance their farm dreams — like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account that is currently being debated in appropriations — are urgently needed.
In short, the programs and tools new farmers have had at their fingertips over the past ten years have perhaps made a dent in slowing the aging of our country’s farm population, but a greater investment and a more coordinated, national strategy is urgently needed to truly buck this trend and ensure the next generation of farmers have the opportunity to successful pursue a career in agriculture.
(NSAC blog, May 28, 2014)