Opinion: Aging farmer population threatens U.S. food chain

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When I say American farmer what image comes to your mind?

Is it a vibrant, young, Paul Bunyan giant of a man who, with his faithful blue ox Babe (or John Deere steel), cutting huge swaths of earth with a single pass to single-handedly feed a grateful U.S. population?

Uh no.

Especially that young part.

Because the aging of America’s farmer is quickly reaching a crisis which threatens to disrupt and destabilize the U.S. food system.

Last year the National Young Farmers Coalition shared this thought-provoking number – farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under the age of 35 by a staggering 6-to-1 ratio.

The report concludes:

“Ensuring the success of our nation’s newest farmers and ranchers and those who aspire to join them will require deliberate policy change at all levels of government … To preserve farming as a livelihood and to revitalize our nation’s agricultural economy, though, will require more than a whole-of-government approach. It demands a deliberate effort from every stakeholder—individuals, communities, and businesses—to ensure the success of young farmers.”

Nor is it that federal government is somehow blind to the aging of the U.S. farmer.

The last USDA Census of Agriculture report (the next one is due out later this year) shows that between 1982 and 2012, the average age of the U.S. farmer rose from 50.5 years to 58.3 years.

So, it is not unreasonable for Big Ag to ask some integrating questions.

Monsanto:  Who are we going to sell our latest gene splicing soybean seeds to?

John Deere:  What happens when the aging farmer population leaves farms in droves (either through death or retirement)?  Will our combine sales plummet?

Archer Daniels Midland:  If the grain chain is disrupted by a lack of growers, how do we make oodles of profit in the cash market?  And can we source enough raw commodities to source byproducts in much of U.S. processed food?

I could go on ad nauseum but you get the idea.

Ag companies both big and small are living in the reality that unless something is done to repopulate the U.S. farmer community, they’ll one day be in a locker room of hurt.

Nor has the last four years of declining farm profits and, in many cases farm losses, done anything to persuade farmers and ranchers to stay to course.

To keep farming, the aging farmer population has had to take out huge loans to continue to buy inputs to work the land – seed, fertilizer, equipment repairs and replacements, diesel, storage … the list seems endless.

Over the years there has been a lot of talk about the need to do something and some policy efforts.

The 2014 Farm Bill offered some new incentives and programs for beginning farmers.

But I expect the 2018 U.S. Ag Census will show those offerings are not enough to stem the tide.

Clearly a holistic approach is needed.

A non-inclusive list of things that need to be addressed include education, access to land and start-up capital.

Congress must get it right in the 2018 Farm Bill.  Another decade without a long-term solution will be too late.


About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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