On average, farmers are older than workers in other careers. According to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, 12 percent of workers in the
civilian work force were over age 55 in 1997. For a complete listing of farm operators by age
from 1910 to 1997, see USDA’s Economic Research Service
agricultural census data
in PDF format.
Why are American farmers older today than in the past? Overall, Americans are living longer today,
and, as self-employed individuals, farmers can continue to work after others have retired. Also,
the mechanization of agriculture has helped older farmers continue to farm using machinery instead
of physical labor.
As with society, the future of farming depends on new, younger farmers entering the industry. The
share of farmers younger than 35 has declined from 15 percent in 1954 to 8 percent in 1997. This
shrinkage is attributed to the decline in farm numbers and the fact that families are having fewer
children than in the past.
New farmers typically enter the industry through the family farm business. The decision to enter
farming depends on the attractiveness of farm versus non-farm employment. When the non-farm
economy is robust, young people may opt for higher incomes available off the farm.
USDA’s Economic Research Service suggests that it takes
$500,000 in assets to fully support a farm household. So, access to financial capital can be a
stumbling block for young farmers eager to enter the industry. Currently, several state and
federal program exist to help young farmers. The Agricultural Credit Improvement Act of 1992
created a beginning farmers down payment farm ownership loan program, and required USDA’s
Farm Service Agency to target a percentage of its loans to
beginning farmers and ranchers.
While the aging of America’s farmers is unlikely to affect the nation’s food supply (because of
advances in technology), it is a concern for the structure of farming. The Secretary of Agriculture
has appointed a Beginning Farmers Advisory Committee to make recommendations on financial
assistance and methods to create new farming and ranching opportunities.