The Graying Farmer: The Future of U.S. Agriculture

While we await the 2008 agricultural census results, the trends in some of the data are fairly predictable. A prominent feature of the 2002 statistics, the “graying” of the American farmer, continues to be a cause of concern for many.

In 2002, the census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that the average age of America’s estimated 2 million farmers was 55.3 years. With only 5.8 percent of farmers under the age of 35, some fear that the retirement of older farmers and a shift to large-scale operations will have a negative impact on the industry.

“There’s a real cause for concern,” said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. “We need a new generation of farmers to reinvigorate farming and our communities.”

Not all have a negative outlook, however. According to a new survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation earlier this year, the next generation of farmers are ready to step up to the plate.

The study, which surveyed farmers and ranchers ages 18 to 35, found that the vast majority of young farmers (83 percent) are more optimistic about farming than they were five years earlier. In addition, 92 percent see themselves remaining in farming for the rest of their lives and 95 percent would like to see their children follow in their footsteps.

Young farmers are earth-savvy as well. Taking care of the environment, practicing conservation tillage and utilizing new technology were a priority of those surveyed. High levels of involvement in agricultural organizations like the Farm Bureau and Future Farmers of America is also encouraging.

The availability of land, overall profitability, urbanization, government regulations and the cost of health care were cited as the biggest challenges faced by young farmers. Though these are very real obstacles, many are finding ways to give these fresh faces a hand.

Some states now offer low-interest loans, tax breaks and mentorship programs for new farmers. Colleges and universities are also getting in on the act. The University of Oregon introduced its Small Farms Program to offer guidance and education for both young and old farmers across the state. Drawing a different demographic, the new organic and small farm niche has opened the doors for a new “hip” generation of farmers.

“Young farmers are an emerging social movement,” said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who is making a documentary called “The Greenhorns” about the trend.

Do you think that this enthusiastic generation will prove to capable of handling the future of American agriculture? Will this organic movement, new technology and a “green” focus lead us to where we need to go? Let me know your thoughts.

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