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Ag Census: Producers Get Older, Number of Female Farm Owners Tops 1 Million

Farmers in the U.S. got older between 2012 and 2017 despite a number of younger producers entering the industry in the boom years of 2012 and 2013, while the number of women and minorities who own their own farms increased, according to the recently released Census of Agriculture.

The average age for principal producers in 2017 was 58.6 years old, the government said in the census, which was released last week. That wasn’t a huge surprise, analysts said, as the average age has risen in each census since 1982.

“I’m not surprised that the average age went up for a couple reasons,” said Jacquie Voeks, a senior market adviser at brokerage Stewart Peterson. “2012 attracted a lot of young farmers, but farmers that maybe should’ve been retiring stuck around. They saw this opportunity, they saw the value of their land skyrocket and thought it was never going to change. So instead of leaving the farm, they stayed.”

Still, the increase in age from 2012 to 2017 was the smallest in three decades. The average rose 0.3 year in the five-year period, down from 1.2 years during the previous time frame through 2012. The biggest census-over-census gain was from 1992 to 2012 when the average rose by 2 years.

The age of all producers – not just the principal owner of the farm – rose to 57.5 years of age, according to the census.

Larry Glenn, an analyst and broker at Frontier Ag in Quinter, Kansas, said farmers with whom he’s spoken have indicated they’re not going anywhere despite their advancing age. One reason – it’s what they’ve done their entire lives and essentially don’t know what else they’d do, he said.

“Some of those farmers will die on the farm,” he said. "Some would like to slow down, and maybe some will retire, but it does seem like they’re staying around longer. It’s like me – what else would I do? So they’re going to keep doing what they do best.”

Producers may hire younger people to help them, but few are leaving the operation altogether, Glenn said.

Young and Beginning Farmers

In 2012, when corn and soybean prices were at records, young and beginning growers essentially saw farming as a way to print money – they couldn’t seem to lose. Some have stuck with it while others have gone back to town to find work.

“I’m thinking some of those younger farmers didn’t survive and no longer are in the mix,” Glenn said. “They didn’t have the capital to sustain themselves, so maybe they’ve exited. I’d hate to be a new guy coming in right now – it’s a struggle. It’s tough out there.”

More Women Producers

It’s not just age that’s changing – more women also have become principal producers. About 1.23 million females were principal operators in 2017, up from 969,672 in 2012, marking the first time the figure has topped 1 million, according to government data.

Men still dominated the field with 2.17 million being the principal operator. That figure, however, fell for a second straight census, the USDA said. Stewart Peterson’s Voeks, who’s been in the industry for decades, said she’s happy to seem more women getting into the industry.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “Women have been in agriculture forever. We’ve all milked cows and did all the work, but we weren’t the owners like these young gals are right now.”

Despite the overall age increasing, some of the USDA data offers hope for the future. One in four producers is a beginning farmer, classified as one with 10 or fewer years of experience. The average age of the group was 46.3 years old.

Farms with new or beginning producers tend to be smaller than those owned by older growers, but farmers are bigger as a whole, so that’s not a surprise, Glenn said.

Voeks said she’s seen young people enter the industry and they’re intelligent, educated, motivated, and plan to be around for the long haul.

“It’s the enthusiasm – we need that injection of hope and that look to the future,” she said. “What agriculture needs is an injection of enthusiasm.”

Increased Diversity

The number of black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans classified as principal operators of farmers also increased.

Black producers totaled 38,447 in 2017, up from 33,371 five years earlier, the census said. The number of Hispanic principal operators were reported at 90,344, up from just 67,000 in 2012, the USDA said. Asian farm owners totaled 16,978, up from 13,669 five years prior, and Native American principal operators totaled 46,210 in 2017, up from 37,851 in 2012.

In a new category for the 2017 census, the report showed that 370,819 farmers served in the Armed Forces, while 3.03 million never served.

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