FARMERS are, on average, getting older. That basic fact has worried agriculture industry leaders for years, but one economist and policy expert said there is little cause for alarm, based on overall U.S. labor trends.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the age of the average U.S. farmer has trended older as the overall farm population has dwindled. Using those data, roughly 60% of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older, while only 0.5% of farmers are under the age of 25.
Ohio State University economist Carl Zulauf examined data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Census of Agriculture" in addition to examining BLS data on the labor force at large. The average age of a principal operator increased from 54.0 years in 1997 to 57.1 years in 2007 and is up 17% from the average of 48.7 years first reported in the 1945 "Census of Agriculture" (Figure 1).
Furthermore, the percentage of principle farm operators 65 years or older has increased almost 10% since 1969. That "graying" of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution, with leaders such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack frequently citing the trend and calling for the industry to encourage more young people to return to their agricultural roots.
Comparing the age of the U.S. farmer over time to the age of the average non-farm worker, however, Zulauf found an interesting trend: U.S. workers, in general, are getting older.
"U.S. farmers are aging, but their aging mirrors the U.S. labor force," he said in a recent policy brief. "The U.S. farmer population is older than the U.S. labor force, but this has been true since 1980 and likely much earlier."
In fact, the U.S. farmer is actually aging somewhat more slowly than his non-farm counterpart. Since 1980, when age data become available on the entire labor force, the age of the average worker has increased by 7.1 years — from 34.6 to 41.7 — compared with an increase from 50.5 to 57.1 years for the farmer population (Figure 2).
There are two key reasons why an older U.S. farmer is a logical reality: general age differences in rural America and the capital-intensive nature of farming.
According to an analysis by USDA's Economic Research Service, older Americans make up a larger percentage of rural residents than in urban areas. More than 16% of the "non-metro" population is 65 years of age and older, compared with just 12.4% of the "metro" population.
Additionally, Zulauf pointed to the economic reality of owning and operating a farm as perhaps the biggest underlying factor in the "age gap" between farmers and the general labor force.
"It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete in U.S.-style farming, either through inheritance or savings or both," he said.
One period in history that bucked the age trend, however, was the prosperous 1970s. The farm "boom" of that decade coincided with a relative influx of younger farmers, both the offspring of existing farmers and from non-farm backgrounds.
Given the current agricultural boom, Zulauf posited that the age of the U.S. farmer could trend lower once again.
"This influx will likely occur over a number of years, and its magnitude will depend on the staying power of the current farm prosperity," he said.