KANSAS CITY — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture is a picture of a gradually consolidating economic sector led by an aging population of growers. The total number of farms in the United States fell to 2.04 million in 2017 from 2.11 million in 2012, the last time the Census of Agriculture was completed. The largest farms, with sales of $1 million or more, accounted for 4 per cent of the farms, but 69 per cent of sales.
The average age of all U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years, 1.2 years older than the average in 2012. This aging trend of the U.S. producer population has been evident for decades and makes attracting younger farmers to replace those who age out of the workforce a priority.
Farming in the United States is specialized, whether it is the differences in growing durum wheat in the Upper Midwest or Southwest, or dairying in the moderate climate of California versus the harsher climate of Wisconsin. As older producers exit the business, a knowledge gap may develop that is difficult to fill. Such a scenario is unfolding in Japan as the number of people working in agriculture has fallen by 60 per cent during the past three decades.
Other consolidated industries, like food and beverage processing, have experienced the emergence of a competitive start-up culture that is driving innovation throughout the supply chain. Such a dynamic may be emerging at the farm level. Compared to the 2012 Census, the number of producers with less than two years of experience in farming doubled from 100,947 in 2012 to 201,061 in 2017. The U.S.D.A. also began tracking “young producers” in 2017, those younger than 35, and found 321,261 producers operating 240,121 farms and managing 114,588,706 acres. These numbers are small in context to overall farm production but point to an interest in agriculture from younger generations.
This interest from younger producers is a positive sign that must be nurtured. A key component of long-term success in any business and industry is leadership succession and the opportunity for smaller businesses to grow.
Of concern is how smaller agriculture producers will find a path to grow in such a consolidated industry. The Census showed a continued hollowing of the middle within farming. All categories of mid-size farms fell in number, according to the Census. Farms that generated sales between $50,000 up to $999,999 dropped to 408 in 2017 from 438 in 2012. Over the five-year period, the only class of farms by sales that grew were those generating insignificant sums — less than $2,500 in sales — up slightly to 792 from 788. The hurdles impeding new farmers from growing are diverse. Industry consolidation and the costs associated with expanding is just one.
The interconnectedness of food manufacturing and farming makes the aging of the U.S. farming population an issue to monitor. It is in the food and beverage industry’s interests to promote production agriculture to bring younger farmers into the profession.