Can we help the next generation of farmers?


We could all name names.

Good farms that have no one waiting in the wings to take over the business. Farmers whose sons and daughters have chosen other careers.

It’s not an indictment on the farm’s owners, nor the sons and daughters; it’s just a plain fact. Many current farmers don’t have a successor.

And it’s a little worrisome, because the fastest growing group of farm operators is those 65 and older. The graying of agriculture, they call it. (link opens .pdf. of 2007 Census of Agriculture demographics.)

None of us should be surprised, because we see it all around us. In Ohio, the average age of a principal farm operator is 55.7. The average Pennsylvania farmer is 55.2 years old. Nationally, the average age of a farmer is 57.1.

Last year’s Iowa’s Farm and Rural Life Poll — the longest-running annual survey of its kind in the nation — found that of the farmers who planned to retire in the next five years, only 56 percent had identified a successor. And the 735 farmers over 55 who responded to the poll had only 350 children who farmed — less than half the number needed to replace those 735 farmers.

In the survey, the Iowa State researchers asked the parents why they thought their children picked another career. Again, it should be no surprise the top two factors were money-related.

Seventy-five percent of the farmers said other occupations provided their children better income — and that was a major influencing factor in their career choice. And more than half said the fact that their children couldn’t afford to buy land, equipment, livestock, you name it, was also a major factor. Not every retiring farmer can afford to gift assets to their children to get them going, or even give up their own income or retirement income to cut them a deal.

(Let’s face it, too, not every child who grows up on a farm wants to farm for a living. Their skills, interests and passions are focused elsewhere. We wouldn’t want it any other way — in this country, you can be whatever you want to be.)

But we’d also hope that in this country, where the need for the next generation of farmers is huge, that we could find ways to support young farmers.

The Iowa poll also asked its respondents what might improve the situation for the next generation. Give them loans, they said, and let’s try to get the old guys and the young guns together. More than 80 percent of the farmers said expanding loan programs for beginning farmers, and programs that link beginning farmers with retiring farmers were either “needed” or “critically needed.”

Give them tax credits, they added. Try to build mentoring programs between young farm families and established farm families.

Interestingly, though, the survey also asked those same farmers what prompted their children to choose farming. A “love of farming” and “quality of life” were at the top of the list, along with “grew up wanting to farm” and “could be their own boss.”

The numbers can be depressing, but those final responses help clear the blues. If we can somehow figure out how to enable those young people who want to farm, our community of agriculture will remain strong.


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