American Agriculture Is Aging — So Now What?
Recently, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a survey that provided an eye-opening statistic. The figure showed that farmers over the age 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one. It also showed that nearly two-thirds of farmland is managed by someone older than 55 years. The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland will change ownership in the next five years.
If these figures don’t bring home the aging of American agriculture, I don’t know what will. But, the simple fact remains, we must have young farmers come in and fill the shoes of the generation of growers nearing the end of their careers.
There are a number of obstacles in front of growers and the report lists four that are having particular impacts.
It takes land to farm, and the young farmers surveyed for this report say that is the biggest challenge they face. In fact, 39% of current young farmers listed it as a significant challenge, and 17% called it the most significant challenge they face. And, this problem affects both first generation and multigenerational farmers.
Like many young Americans, student loan debt hangs heavy over the heads of young growers. Up to 39% point to debt as a significant or most significant challenge. Obtaining credit to farm is hard enough as it is without a huge amount in student loans to contend with.
Labor shortages also have been listed as a problem. But, this is one impacting all of agriculture. The good news on this front is the rapidly evolving technology sector where soon machines could replace man to complete many of the labor tasks on farms like hand harvesting.
The fourth challenge is one that is not mentioned often but is worthy of consideration — health insurance. Nearly half of respondents called the lack of affordable health insurance a significant challenge. While the “repeal and replace” action in Congress appears to be on hold, it is interesting to note that young growers most often cited the Affordable Care Act as the most helpful program or policy. So, if and when healthcare reform goes in for round two, lawmakers should keep the provisions of the law young growers like.
When you step back and look at the survey results, it is easy to understand why the demographics are so skewed toward the older generation. The report went on to offer a lot recommendations on ways to make it easier for young growers to maintain their farm or get started in the business. Many of those recommendations — you guessed it — cost money.
So, as lawmakers debate tax cuts and the national debt, it probably will be easy for the needs of farmers — young and old — to get lost in the mix. In some ways, we are seeing that very thing happen already as Florida citrus growers have desperately called on Congress to provide hurricane disaster relief funds. So far, these pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Dollars are scarce, so it will be a fight to get funds needed to support young growers and American agriculture in general. That will take active leadership from all sectors of farming to work with their legislators and continue the age-old quest to educate the public about the importance farming and an affordable and abundant domestic food supply.
But, I remain optimistic about the future of young farmers. We are about to witness a technological revolution unfold on the farm as was outlined in the recent GenNext Growers webcast. These technologies will make farming easier, more accessible, and productive.