Impact of COVID-19 on Agriculture

The Fear of Running Out of Farmers

Viewpoints / Focus on Agriculture February 17, 2015

A demographic study of farming and ranching in Wyoming forecasts there will be no operators under the age of 35 by the year 2033. The study in Rangelands, a publication of the Society for Range Management, found that the average age of farmers has increased in every county in Wyoming since 1920, and will reach 60 by the year 2050. Based on these results, the authors predict a bleak farming future for Wyoming and the rest of the country where trends are similar.

Believe it or not, the fear of not having enough farmers and ranchers has been around as long as the first county Farm Bureau, founded a little over a hundred years ago in Broome County, New York. The concern back then was that too many young men were leaving the hard life of farming to seek gainful employment in the big cities. Farm Bureau was formed out of a desire to make farming more socially and financially rewarding.

The exodus from farms and ranches continued, however, but became far less worrisome because of mechanization and the tremendous increase in farm productivity. In fact, the pendulum swung the other way. During much of the 20th century there were too many people trying to make a living from farming, and too much land was in production.

The aging of the farm workforce became noticeable in the 1950s and has continued relatively unabated ever since. The average age of farmers was 48.7 years in 1945, the first year it was officially reported in the Census of Agriculture. The average age now is 58.3 years. The share of farmers age 65 and older was 14 percent in 1945: It is now 33 percent. Only 6 percent of farmers are under the age of 35.

Do all these numbers spell big trouble for the nation’s agriculture? Not necessarily. The entire American workforce is aging. By the year 2020, 25 percent of the labor force will be over 55, up from 12 percent in 1990. Agriculture, real estate and education are the three employment categories with the highest number of workers over 55. An older agricultural workforce is nothing new, at least not in the last half century.

Generally speaking, today’s 65-year-old is better educated, healthier and more willing to extend their working years than seniors in the past. It seems fair to say that a 58-year-old farmer today is comparable to a 48-year-old farmer in 1945.

According to the Stanford Center on Longevity, agriculture will need to rely on a larger share of older workers and use them as well to train young workers. The U.S. birth rate is projected to average 4.6 million per year from 2015 to 2060, that’s more than the peak year of the baby boom.

American agriculture has a recruiting job to do, but it has never been in a better position to convince future generations to become farmers and ranchers.

Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.

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