Study Predicts No Farmers And Ranchers Under Age 35 By 2033

Study Predicts No Farmers And Ranchers Under Age 35 By 2033

When did you last hear a high school senior say “I’m taking over the ranch” or even a 7-year-old announce “I want to be a farmer”? As long-time farmers and ranchers grow older, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pass on the family farm or find young employees to pick up the reins at large corporate ranches.


The current issue of the journal Rangelands reports on the demographic trends in the industry in Wyoming. Using statistics, maps, and graphs, the authors consider nearly 90 years of census and other data related to these trends. They examine how the agricultural community is aging and consider ways to inspire interest in farming and ranching.

The U.S. has a rich agricultural history. Family farms once employed nearly half of the country’s work force. But that culture has changed; today most farms are corporate, mechanized, larger in size, and fewer in number. Only 2% of today’s workers are employed at U.S. farms or ranches.

The authors of the Rangelands article focused on the High Plains, specifically Wyoming, which still holds large tracts of working land. They reviewed decades of U.S. Census data, sorting it into classes based on worker age. They then mapped the results to pinpoint both state- and county-level trends.

They found that more than half of today’s farm operators are older than 55. In all but two counties in Wyoming, farming has attracted ever fewer people 34 years and younger. Most counties have also seen drops in the 35 to 54 age bracket. As a result, the average age of farmers and ranchers has increased in every county in Wyoming since 1920.

Based on their results, the authors forecast a bleak farming future: no operators younger than 35 by 2033 and an average age of 60 by 2050. Even if their children and grandchildren show interest in agriculture, farmers often cannot afford to keep their land and equipment. They “retire” and sell — often to residential or commercial developers. The authors state that the trends in Wyoming are occurring throughout the U.S.

The authors conclude that the loss of farmers, ranchers, and their land is compounded by the loss of local wisdom. They argue for a new approach that turns young heads away from the lucrative oil and coal industries. Teaching and internship programs, government incentives, and conservation easements that preserve farming and ranch estates are among the tools already in use. They suggest that if young state residents learn more about their local environment and agricultural heritage, these programs could be even more successful in attracting the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Source: Rangelands news release


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Matt says:

The answer is simple: Government policies that discriminate against the young family farmer and favor the large corporate farmer. How? Through lax immigration policies, tax incentives only available to corporate entities, “free” trade with other nations, etc.

Add to this the very low margins, extremely high cost of entry, etc. If speculation with farm land was made illegal, it was taxed only at it’s current use value and the death tax was removed for farmers, THEN you might see some of the younger people being interested.

I am currently 37 and grew up on a cash crop farm. My father encouraged me NOT to work on the farm and find a steady, good paying job elsewhere. The problem with farming is that it is in your blood and is almost impossible to remove. I now work two jobs. One to have health insurance and one to do what I love: farming.

The problem? The cost of land and equipment is TOO high. I would like to be able to purchase my father’s land and some of the neighbors who are retiring. Even small 35 and 50 acre lots of land are going for $10,000 to $15,000 an acre. Much higher that it’s value as Ag land (in my area). When I compare the cost of land today with what my parents paid for it as a percentage of their yearly income, I am left with a very dis-heartened situation.

My father bought his first 80 acres in 1975 for $35,000. He earned $39,000 that year at Oscar Mayer working in meat processing. He said he paid off that land in two years. That SAME farm land today is worth $1.25 million dollars. I make $65,000 working off the farm at the moment. What took Dad two years to pay off would take me the rest of my life. Couple that with low commodity prices, high input costs, huge amounts of risk, equipment, taxes, etc. What is left to live on at the end of the season if you don’t already own the land in the clear?

Dad is also looking at the farm as his retirement. Like so many older farmers, they need to choose between a comfortable retirement and passing the farm on to their children.

There are so many problems with the way that the current system is setup, that it is no surprise that family farms are disappearing and corporate farms are taking over. If the trend continues, only corporate “family” farms will remain. It will happen much sooner than what is predicted here as well. All it will take is another recession for many of the older farmers to just be done, for good.

Myra says:

VERY WELL said, Matt. You are right on. My husband and I own a small farm in Northern Illinois on which we grow vegetables for a few markets, about 40 acres of grain, and we have a bit of livestock and a small greenhouse. Money is constantly being put back into the farm… But we’re here because we love it. Unfortunately, we’re struggling with the health insurance as we pay a more obscene amount of money with the passing of Obamacare. Unless you are or working for a large corporation, we’re paying ridiculous premiums out of our savings (earned before we moved to the farm) or have the option to go on medicaid. To find a full time job at a large corporation would take one of us off the farm, which would affect our business/ livelihood, which IS where our hearts are. We also have a 5 year old boy, who wants to be a farmer when he grows up! (Sigh)

Ellen says:

Add to the previous comments the dismal fact that our government is for sale to the highest bidder and it doesn’t matter what state you reside in it effects all of us. Small farmers cannot afford a lobbyist and so have no voice in Federal, State and County government and on a more local level small towns want the taxes from homes packed close together as apposed to farmland taxed at a lower level so favor residential building. This fight cannot be fought by farmers alone it needs communities to realize that fresh healthy food is best produced locally. I think the biggest help we could use is to fight the stereotype of the backward ignorant farmer. Yes, lets face the fact that farming is looked at as dirty, low level,hard work, done by people not intelligent enough to program a computer (elsewise why would anyone choose to do that kind of work I have been told). I have a fellow co-worker who told me his high school guidance counselor was angry with him for choosing farming because…”it was a waste of his high intelligence”! My TV viewing time is monopolized with commercials for on-line colleges of every sort but I have never seen an add for an Agricultural institution among them, not one! As a country that feeds the rest of the world during crisis why is no one touting the positive aspects of running your own business as a farmer? You teachers out there when you discuss careers have you ever thought of exploring farming with your students, If you have, did you put a positive spin on it? It won’t do to ignore farming as a positive job choice in the lower grades and then think a child is going to automatically include that field in choices when career paths are chosen. Growing a sunflower seed with a 1st grader won’t set him on that road. What will, is pointing out the positives, tell your students that when silicon alley is laying off thousands in the next economic down turn or manufacturing jobs head to the next 3rd world country people will still have to eat and farmers grow their food! Point out that farming is high tech! The day when you threw some seed in the ground and hoped for the best is gone todays grower has to know all the science behind growing everything we do is based on science! I think to make headway we need to enlist the consumer in our fight for good pay and a share of the pie as smaller farmers. How do we match the lobbying power of big AG? We educate people to understand what will happen when there are only factory farms left, to know that when you have no link to the land, produce or animals that are produced they lose and they lose because factory farms do not take pride in what they do, cutting costs and making money is the only factor for them the owners sit in an office and never see or touch the produce or animals they look at a chart on a wall. If you think you can’t educate people to support you as a small farmer just look at the big companies pulling pet treat production from China and advertising that as a selling point. My local grocery store proudly advertises their local sources! We need to have teachers, government and consumers know what they can do to turn this around and we need to enlist them in the fight to encourage farming as a career.

Mark says:

Make it lucrative enough for people like Matt to realize an income from farming comparable to off farm employment with the perks like health insurance and you will attract youth into agriculture. The problem is that John Q. Public resents paying for food needs but has an unlimited budget for his electronic wants. Cheap food keeps votes and that is what the government wants–democrat or republican. With declining farm populations food supplies will be in control of fewer and fewer people. At some point in time food will be the new oil. If you have heard people complain of high fuel prices in the past let food prices climb to where they should be and you will really hear squawking. Better yet let the situation go unchanged and a grocery store shelf become empty due to lack of producers and you will see true civil unrest.

As a life-long “farmer” in New England(Yes,there are still farmers in New England)and a retired teacher I have witnessed a revolution in the past decade of younger people wanting to become farmers and eager to learn techniques that will benefit their goals. In Massachusetts we have increased the number of farms and farmers in the last decade, albeit small in nature, and have concentrated on direct marketing to the public through farm stands, farmer’s markets, and CSA’s. High initial startup costs are somewhat mitigated by the less capitol intensive CSA’s and farmers markets. Land costs are out of sight($100,000 per acre in some cases even more) but many landowners and nonprofits with land preservation as a goal are making much productive farmland available.People interested in farming must participate in the political process and become elected at least to local political office. You can’t effect political and social change by being merely an observer. By getting involved with your local government, knowing your state and federal elected officials, much can be done. Our present locavore movement is a great result of increased awareness of the role and responsibility of local agriculture. Local land grant colleges in New England have dramatically increased enrollments and the challenge will be to find qualified instructors at the level. Remenber we all have to eat! Food is truly a greater political force than oil. Support, participate, and encourage agriculture. My family has been growing in the country since the 1630’s. The future is not as bleak as some may think!

Amanda says:

I would caution the other folks commenting on this post to be careful – corporate farms ARE family farms. Our family farm incorporated last year for tax and liability purposes, but that doesn’t mean we are any less of a FAMILY farm. I’m proud to say that my two brothers have both gotten into farming after graduating from college. Both of them will still be under 35 in 10 years.

Matt says:


You are the exception. Most corporate farms are defined, at least by me, as those who are run by people who have little or no direct input to the farm. They are business managers who make decisions based on what is best for the bottom line and not based on what is best for the land, the workers or the family.

Amanda says:

98% of the farms in the United States are FAMILY FARMS.

russell says:

I can only speak for myself. When I returned to the farm in 1985 to be with my father and raise my family I thought I had made a wise descion. I have no regrets. But as a small family farm growing fruits and vegetables even now with 3 adult sons in the day to day operations I would not incouage anyone to farm . The government compliance and intrusion totally ruins all social and family benefits.

Southern Tier Farmer says:

Matt and the others are spot on. High costs, lower margins, high regulations. Why would anyone get into farming? It seems to be coming down to two types of farms. The LARGE corporate farms operated by people who drive a desk instead of a tractor and small “Organic” farmers who have to look for welfare from the govt in order to get going and in many cases continue operation. It doesn’t help when the govt, besides passing even more burdens on the farmer, they promote high cost organic over traditional (and yet still sustainable) farming.

Nick says:

I see more interest in agriculture now than there was when I went to college 13 years ago. Yes, land and equipment are expensive, but nobody said you had to own land to be a farmer. Depending on where you are, you may not have to own much equipment at all. I could get a loan and lease 1000 acres of land in my area, have it custom planted, custom sprayed, and custom harvested and in a reasonable year make enough money to pay myself and do it again the next year. I realize that that isn’t a reality everywhere in the country, but as a leader of a Young Farmer organization, what I see out of new young farmers is a real tenacity to think differently and it seems like most of us younger people are leasing far more land than we own. The commodity crops don’t have much interest from young people though. Almost every young person I know that isn’t coming into a family business is growing fruits and vegetables.

Matt says:

Hi Nick,
Renting land and doing custom contracting is not going to work in MOST of the country. The custom operators have got this industry mostly figured out. If you custom hire everything and lease land you will wind up with mostly paperwork and little left at the end of the year. MOST of the custom operators are geared to small grains, cattle feed (grasses) or other large commodity crop (rape seed, cotton, etc.). They figure out the typical return on an acre is and then figure the necessary inputs. They then price their “services” to return all profit to them if they do all the work. That only makes sense.

Custom hire also does not make sense for vegetable farmers for the same reasons. It is doubly bad if you ask a commodity crop farmer to do custom work as they usually don’t have knowledge of the best practices for vegetables. Examples: You need to spray sweet corn for earn worms. Do you trust the local custom operator to triple rinse his tanks that he had roundup in (since that is almost all he spray?). I know of guys who have had crops so stunted they made nothing on their investment. This was due to a custom operator who didn’t fully clean his tanks between fields. Even the local co-op has had issues like this.

As to Organics being propped up by the government, I find that almost laughable. There is virtually ZERO support of organics from the government. Most organic farmers survive because their crops will demand double the price of conventional counterparts. Many organic farmers are selling direct to the consumer so they are receiving retail or near retail prices. A larger organic farm has input costs that are typically 15-20% higher than conventional, yet their return on their crop is typically 60-100% higher. The “love the earth” part is one piece (but a small one). It is used to bring people in for sales and also give the farmer some reassurance he is not polluting the land for future generations. I guarantee you that if people were not making money in Organics, no one would be doing it.

I am in Wisconsin, so let’s talk milk. Sassy cow creamery in Sun Prairie, WI is a family owned dairy that bottles and sells it’s own milk. It is one of a handful of family owned bottlers left in the state. The HIGH costs of maintaining a class A bottling facility are paid for by the organic side. A gallon of organic milk from Sassy Cow typically sells for $6.50 to $7 at retail. The conventional milk from the SAME farm is half that price. The animal husbandry is almost the same with both herds, yet the organic side returns significantly higher profits. There have been signs up in many of the local grocery stores with apologies that they can not meet demand for the organic side (The signs said demand is outstripping their supply at the moment).

Conventional corporate agriculture has a LOT of direct and indirect price supports. Direct in the form of crop insurance, price supports, etc. Indirect in subsidies to industries that use raw agricultural products thereby propping up the commodity price (Ethanol, Plastics, etc.) There are NONE of these for fruits and veggies. Unless you are growing for a processor there is also no guarantee that if you grow a crop, it will get sold. There is no local elevator that will buy your fruits and veggies.

If our government wanted to support HEALTHY commodities, they would provide price supports for fruits and veggies. Mandate a certain percentage of food stamps be used only for fresh fruit and veggies (even frozen veggies).

Sorry if I am being a little crass. Growing veggies, marketing them, etc. is very time and labor intensive. It is not as simple as grains and is not as easily scaled up. Those family farms that are successful has reached that point by very hard work, being business and marketing savvy all without any help from the government.

Amanda says:

My parents and brothers also lease a lot of land. It can definitely work out that way.