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2012 Census Drilldown: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

May 28, 2014


On May 2, USDA released data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture.  The Census of Agriculture has been conducted since 1840 and currently is collected once every five years.  This is the fourth in a series of drilldown posts, looking at particular themes from the Census that relate to beginning farmers and ranchers.

To view the other posts in this series, check out the following links:

BEGINNING FARMERS

The new Census data continues to show the aging of the American farm population, with the average age of the American farmer increasing from 57.1 in 2007 to 58.3 in 2012.  What’s more concerning however, is the slow rate at which new farmers are entering agriculture, and the much faster rate at which older farmers are retiring from farming.  On the whole, the U.S. farm population shrunk by roughly 4 percent in the last five years.  This is not all that surprising, given the economic recession and severe weather conditions from the past several years.

increase age

However, there were 20 percent fewer beginning farmers (those farmers who have been farming for ten years or less) in 2012 than there were five years earlier.  Our take away?  For starters, that statistic alone signals that recent efforts to reverse the trend of the aging of our farm population have not been as impactful as initially hoped.

NSAC has long championed the need for a scaled up investment in the next generation of farmers, and we have had many successes.  The new Census results, however, could not be a clearer signal that our country urgently needs a far more robust national strategy to restore farming as a viable career for the next generation of producers who will step in and continue to farm our country’s land and feed people well into the future.

Below, we break down these Census results further in order to better understand which regions of the country are losing ground fastest with respect to growing the next generation of farmers and which states are leading the way as potential models for how to successfully transition farmland down to a new cohort of young and aspiring farmers.

General Trends

While the farming population in general shrunk by about 4 percent over the past five years, the most significant decrease occurred in farmers who have been farming five years or less.  This pool of very new, beginning farmers shrunk by 23.3 percent since the last Census was released in 2007, whereas those farmers who got started farming ten years ago (between 2003 and 2007) fared slightly better and only decreased by 19.6 percent.  However, even the more “established” beginning farmers shrunk at a much faster rate than their more established farmers who have been farming for more than ten years.

And while there may have been many more farmers who started farming since the last Census, this trend tells us that either not as many farmers chose to pursue agriculture as a career since the last Census, or those who did start farming in the past ten years, and especially over the past five years, did not make it and quit farming temporarily or altogether.

The 2012 Census also had a slightly lower response rate than previous years, and it wouldn’t be surprising if beginning farmers had a lower response rate compared with more established farms that are accustomed to filling out the Census every five years.  In some ways, it is much harder for USDA to track down beginning farmers compared with more established farmers.

Still, there is real concern about the meager numbers of new farmers who are transitioning into agriculture, given that large numbers of their predecessors will be retiring in droves in the coming decades.  The new Census results show that there are now more farmers over the age of 75 than those between the ages of 35 and 44.  From the chart below, it is obvious to see the “lost generation” of farmers under the age of 45 who have chosen to pursue a career other than agriculture.

by age

Despite this gloomy news, the latest Census does show a small increase in the very youngest farmers between the ages of 25 and 34.  While this modest increase is not substantial enough to offset the large droves of farmers reaching retirement age, it is a notable trend that suggests that more and more young people are finding their way into agriculture as a first career option. Groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition have recognized this trend in recent years and have helped develop federal programs, resources and network opportunities for these very young farmers who are coming into agriculture without farm backgrounds and without much capital, but a lot of passion for growing food and taking care of the land.

However, the huge gap between the number of “young” farmers under the age of 44 and those older farmers which make up the vast majority of our country’s farming population suggests more needs to be done to not only recruit more young people into farming, but also those farmers who may be considering agriculture as a second career in their mid 30s to late 40s.

States with the Oldest (and Youngest) Farmers

In general, the new Census data shows that the Plains, Upper Midwest, and a few Northeastern states tend to have younger farmers than the South, Southwest, and Western regions of the country.  Nebraska leads the country as the state with the youngest farmers (55.7 years) and Arizona farmers are the oldest on average (61 years).

Average Age US Farmers

However, there are very localized pockets of both old and young farmers.  Two counties in Colorado (Broomfield and Denver) and two counties in West Virginia (Mingo and McDowell) have some of the oldest farmers in the country with the average farmer being as old as 73.6 years old.  On the opposite spectrum, the counties surrounding New York City (NY), Boston (MA), and Ithaca (NY) have some of the youngest farmers across the nation, including an average age as low as 37.4 years.  This trend points to the growing number of younger farmers settling in urban and peri-urban areas where they are able to take advantage of direct access local markets – including farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and direct to retail sales.

In total, 78 percent of all counties in the United States saw an increase in the age of their farming population, with Denver (CO), San Francisco (CA), and Chattahoochee (GA) counties feeling the most significant aging of their farm populations.  Only 13 percent of counties saw their farmers becoming younger on average over the past five years – with Suffolk (MA), Ramsey (MN), and Leslie (KY) witnessing the largest drop in the age of their farmers.

Where are Beginning Farmers Farming? 

Interestingly, there is not necessarily a strong correlation between states with the youngest (or oldest) farmers, and what percentage of the state’s farming population is new to agriculture and considered a “beginning farmer” by USDA definitions.

Since the USDA definition of “beginning farmers” does not have an age requirement and only refers to farmers who have been farming for ten years or less, the Census data reveals that farmers enter into, and retire from, agriculture at different stages in their lives depending on where they live and where they farm.

For example, Texas has one of the oldest farming populations, but also has the greatest number of beginning farmers and one of the highest percentages of beginning farmers compared to other states.  In contrast, Minnesota farmers are some of the youngest on average when compared to other states, but only 20 percent of the state’s farmers have been farming for less than 10 years.

What this means is that farmers in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Indiana are getting started in agriculture earlier in life but may not be farming as long as farmers in the South, Southwest, and West.  It may also be the case that there is more succession planning in Midwestern and Great Plains states where the family farm is successfully passed down to the next generation, and that this transition of land is not happening to the same extent in other parts of the country.  Finally, it could be that some farmers are relocating or retiring to states like California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to pursue farming as a second or post-retirement career.

Source: USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture

Source: USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture

The top states with the greatest number of beginning farmers roughly follow those states with the most total farmers, with Texas having the most new farmers by far with over 60,000 beginning farmers.  There are several states in the Plains, Midwest and Appalachian regions which have higher numbers of beginning farmers than other parts of the country.  California is the only state outside these regions that falls into the top ten states with greatest numbers of new farmers, and it also has one of the highest proportionate shares of its farming population being new to agriculture (36 percent compared to the national average of 29 percent).  Beginning farmers in Iowa on the other hand are significantly more outnumbered by more established farmers, with only 22 percent of its farmers being considered beginning farmers.  Minnesota is the only state that is in both in the top 10 states for total number of farms but not in the top 10 for number of beginning farmers.

Similarly, the states with the fewest number of beginning farmers are also the states with the fewest number of total farmers and include mainly states in the Northeast, Alaska and Hawaii.  However, these same states have some of the highest concentrations of beginning farmers with over half of Alaska’s farming population having been farming for ten years or less.

Which States are Attracting (and Losing) Beginning Farmers?

The Census data also reveals some interesting trends in terms of which states are doing a better job than others in recruiting new farmers and supporting their successful transition into agriculture.

In total, only nine states increased the number of farmers entering agriculture in the past five years compared to the previous Census.  New England is one region that although it has a relatively small farming population, has been successful in growing new farmers over the past ten years.  Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont lead the region with the biggest growth in beginning farmers.  Interestingly, neighboring states like New Jersey lost a significant number of farmers, perhaps due to development pressure or severe flood events in recent years.  And although New York State did see its beginning farmer population decrease, the loss was not as drastic as other parts of the region, perhaps due to the resurgence of local agriculture and small farms in the Hudson Valley and other regions across the state.

Source: USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture

Source: USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture

Nebraska is the only state in America’s heartland that saw their new farmer population increase.  Nebraskan beginning farmers increased by 9.8 percent over the past five years, compared with significant losses in neighboring states including 20 percent loss in Colorado, 15 percent loss in Kansas, 26 percent loss in Missouri, and 15 percent loss in Iowa.  Part of this trend may be due to the fact that Nebraska has many state resources available for beginning farmers – including state tax incentives to transfer land to new farmers, a state land-link program that helps connects beginning farmers with retiring landowners, and a new farmer training program targeting veteran farmers and ranchers.  Organizations like the Center for Rural Affairs, based in Lyons, NE, have also been at the forefront of some of these innovative models for decades.

New Mexico posted a sizable gain in new farmers, and there were a few other states in the West that saw their new farmer populations increase, including Utah, Nevada, and Alaska, although their total farming populations are relatively small.

In general, Southern states witnessed the most significant loss of new farmers entering agriculture over the past five years, with Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama experiencing the greatest decline.

So what explains the overall decrease in the number of beginning farmers in almost every state across the country?  Some of these new farmers that started farming in the past ten years would also have been counted in the previous Census.  What this data represents is that in most states, fewer farmers entered agriculture between 2008 and 2012 than they did between 1998 and 2002.  It may also be the case that some of the new farmers who started farming between 2003 and 2007 were not able to maintain viable farm operations and left farming before the 2012 Census was conducted.  There are many reasons why a new farm fails, and considering the Great Economic Recession and several severe droughts and floods over the past five years, these may be some of the contributing factors to the loss of these new farms.

It is clear that more needs to be done to grow the next generation of producers.  The 2014 Farm Bill that was signed into law earlier this year includes many programs and gives USDA additional tools to help support, train, and provide technical assistance to new farmers.  However, more funding for new farmer training programs are urgently needed.  Additional state and federal tax incentives to incentivize landowners to sell their farmland to a young farmer are urgently needed.  New, innovative models to help new farmers finance their farm dreams — like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account that is currently being debated in appropriations — are urgently needed.

In short, the programs and tools new farmers have had at their fingertips over the past ten years have perhaps made a dent in slowing the aging of our country’s farm population, but a greater investment and a more coordinated, national strategy is urgently needed to truly buck this trend and ensure the next generation of farmers have the opportunity to successful pursue a career in agriculture.

Stay tuned for our last post coming soon that takes a closer look at what the Census tells us about the growth in minority and women farmers.

To view the other posts in this series, check out the following links:


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Research, Education & Extension


5 Responses to “2012 Census Drilldown: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers”

  1. […] & for “What does the new ag Census reveal about the next generation of farmers and the future of agriculture?” click […]

  2. Norm Conrad says:

    The “gorilla in the room” that the report glances at but hasn’t addressed is how many of those new/beginning farmers are coming through traditional voacational ag training programs in high school(FFA) or community college (assoc. degrees) & going into either the family farm or in a partnership and how many are young urban ag farmers coming up thru farm incubator projects or BFR programs? The report isn’t clear on this key factor underlaying the entire demographic issue. With such a large issue two totally separate government agencies look like they are not sharing ( Dept of Education) and USDA and the question is unanswered to me as a reader and more importantly as an ag educator.

  3. […] National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has posted a new Agriculture Census Drilldown: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers – The new Census data continues to show the aging of the American farm population, with the […]

  4. […] From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition – read more here.   […]

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