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Is agriculture aging too quickly?

It's fall. Harvest is underway, and the weather is changing. Both are sure to add a little ache to the knees and creak to the gait when you awake to chilly mornings and find yourself running around more than usual.

Those aches and creaks may also be signs of age. A lot of conjecture in recent years centers around the idea that while we're all aging, that natural process may have damaging implications for the agriculture industry in general. In other words, farmers are getting older, and there may not be enough younger farmers to adequately take over the business when that time comes.

But a closer look at the most recent census data for agriculture compared to that same data for the general U.S. labor pool shows the ag landscape's not much different than the rest of the nation's workers. In fact, in some ways, the trend for farmers shows more youth when compared to the full labor force, says Ohio State University ag economist Carl Zulauf.

True, farmers are aging: The 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture showed at that time, the average farmer was just over 57 years old, and about half of 1% of farmers were 25 or younger, while farmers over 65 made up 30% of the total group. Compare that average age to the ag census in 1945, which showed the average farmer was just shy of 49 years old. That's a 17% climb in age over 62 years. The gap between the general labor force and farmers is much wider when taking into account median, not the mean average age.

"The median divides a set of observations in half when ranked from lowest to highest value. Median age of the U.S. labor force was found for 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010. These years are paired with the nearest Census of Agriculture year," Zulauf says. "The 2007 average age of U.S. farmers exceeded the 2010 median age of the U.S. labor force by 15.4 years. 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. However, it is worth noting that in 2010, only 4% of the U.S. labor force was 65 or older."

That would mean the farming labor force is growing older at a quicker rate today, right? Wrong. That gap between the median age of farmers and general members of the labor force has stayed about the same for almost 35 years. And, in the years preceding that point of stability in the median age discrepancy between general worker and farmer, a trend unfolded that's likely to repeat itself. To Zulauf, that shows the farm sector is just fine, and the chances of the U.S. "running out of farmers" are quite low.

"U.S. farmers are aging, but their aging mirrors the U.S. labor force. The U.S. farmer population is older than the U.S. labor force, but this has been true since 1980 and likely much earlier," Zulauf says. "While much is written about the need to replace the aging U.S. farmer population, the 1970 period of farm prosperity suggests the current period of prosperity will lead to an influx of younger farmers, sons and daughters of existing farmers and those from nonfarm 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. In short, putting the age of farmers in perspective suggests the U.S. will likely have little problem replacing its aging farmer population," he adds.

And, in the end, the number of farmers -- and their ages -- is more a function of money than it is of age, and that's a large part of why farmers are typically simply older than they used to be.

"The older age of farmers is consistent with farming being capital intensive," Zulauf says. It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete in U.S.-style farming, either through inheritance or savings or both."


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