Sat July 20, 2013
Changing Lands, Changing Hands

Whither The American Farmer?

Bob Hawthorn, 84, farms in western Iowa and represents a larger demographic shift. He and his fellow farmers are aging out of the industry, with fewer young people to fill the ranks.
Credit Ray Meints / NET News

The American farmer is getting older. Census data shows the average age is 57, a number likely to climb even higher when a new census comes out in 2014.

For each American farmer younger than 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers are unwilling to retire, and even when they do a whole host of issues crop up when they decide to pass their land to another family member.

Donna Vestal, editor of Harvest Public Media’s Changing Lands, Changing Hands series distills exactly what this demographic shift means, not just for production agriculture but for rural communities and the future of farming:

As our reporting makes clear, as farmers retire (often at a very advanced age), not enough new farmers are able to move into their places. And we’re seeing this play out in the rising land values, a growing local food movement, an extreme squeeze on the midsize family farm, rampant consolidation in the industry, and population loss in rural areas.

For some aging Baby Boomers, they can’t wait to get onto the farm to spend their golden years tending the land.

“There are times that I even now think about when you climb up on top of a grain bin to do something and you’re not 16 anymore,” Columbia, Mo. farmer Jim Schulte, 67, said. “If you happen to slip or come off there, something’s going to break and that’s just the way it is as you get older.”

It’s a different story for the younger crowd, with the physical ability to keep up with farm work, but they encounter roadblocks to enter the industry. Escalating land prices and scarce loans make the dream of owning a farm or ranch almost impossible for young people passionate about farming.

As part of the series, Harvest Public Media produced a documentary on the aging farmer, included below.