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Age not an extra drag on farms

We're all getting older. But, new analysis by a respected Midwest ag economist shows the drag of age isn't heavier in the ag sector than it is in the general labor force, bucking common assumptions that an older farming population means the business is at risk of losing a critical mass of flesh and blood to keep it moving.

The fact that farmers are generally older than their peers in the general labor force is not a new dynamic; that fact's been documented by federal labor data for almost 35 years, but according to Ohio State University ag, that's likely been true for much longer since "the older age of farmers is consistent with farming being capital intensive."

Taking a look back in just the last 3 decades or so, Zulauf found the difference between the age of the average farmer and the median age of the U.S. labor force in general hasn't changed much. In the early 1980s, the average farmer was just over 50 years old, versus the median labor force member age of 34.6. Those numbers have remained generally in step up until the latest tallies of both, in 2007 and 2010 respectively, that showed the average farmer was 57 versus almost 42 for the general median worker.

"This difference has not changed much since 1980, implying that U.S. farmers and the U.S. labor force are aging in concert -- if anything, farmers are aging somewhat slower," Zulauf says. "However, it is worth nothing that in 2010, only 4% of the U.S. labor force was 65 or older."

That latter fact is the one that raises a lot of concern; in looking back over the last 60+ years, Zulauf found that 65-and-older population comprises a much larger share of the farming population, 30% at last count in 2007.

"The only notable decline in average age occurred during the mid-to-late 1970s. It is reasonable to speculate that this decline in average age occurred as a result of the farm prosperity boom of the 1970s," he says.

But while on the surface a seemingly troubling trend for agriculture, that dip in the 1970s foreshadows a potential repeat in the coming years. Despite the considerable capital requirements to get into farming, recent measures of financial prosperity in the ag sector mean it could be possible for younger farmers to get started, trimming the overall farming population's average age. In other words, Zulauf says there's not much reason to worry about sustaining a viable farm workforce in the coming years.

"It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete in U.S.-style farming, either through inheritance or savings or both. While much is written about the need to replace the aging U.S. farmer population, the 1970 period of farm prosperity suggest the current period of prosperity will lead to an influx of younger farmers, sons and daughters of existing farmers and from non-farm backgrounds. 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 says. "In short, putting the age of farmers in perspective suggests the U.S. will likely have little problem replacing its aging farmer population."


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