It Is Becoming ‘Really Hard’ For Young Americans To Break Into Farming, Experts Say

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Will Kessler Contributor
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  • The path for young Americans starting a career in farming is becoming increasingly narrow as prohibitive capital costs and greater innovation mean larger farms and older farmers working more land.
  • The average age of farmers rose from 56.3 years in 2012 to 57.5 years in 2017, following a long-standing trend of aging farmers as labor continues to be mechanized, according to a census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • “I think it’s really hard if they are not coming into an existing farm operation,” Howard Halderman, CEO of Halderman Real Estate & Farm Management and fellow at the Farm Foundation, said about a young person getting into farming without an existing family farm to the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Farming is becoming increasingly inaccessible for young Americans as capital costs rise and large family-owned farming operations grow, agricultural experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Large-scale farms, which are those with yearly gross profits above $1 million, have increased over the last decade, rising from 35% of the total amount of production value to 46% from 2011 to 2020, and in that same time frame, rising in the total share of farms from 16% to 24%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) most recent America’s Diverse Family Farms report. Farms are consolidating among families and creating more large-scale operations, leaving the profession inaccessible to the vast majority of younger people looking to make it in farming, according to experts who spoke to the DCNF. (RELATED: ‘Slow-Motion Heist’: Midwestern Farmers Accuse Chinese Communist Party Of Stealing Valuable American Seeds)

“The average farm size for farms that are producing the major crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, or cotton, rice, peanuts and so on — those farm sizes are almost surely going to continue to increase,” Vincent Smith, the director of agricultural policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor emeritus at Montana State University, told the DCNF. “The way they increase is typically by buying up a less efficient neighbor’s operation.”

Smith pointed to technological innovation and the increasing use of capital equipment that has allowed fewer people to work a larger amount of land, meaning larger farms per individual are possible. He also argued that farmers are more receptive to selling their operations as farmers follow the national trend of having fewer kids, which limits who the farm can be passed down to, and that young people who are interested in agriculture can make more money at an early age by taking other jobs besides farming.

“I think it’s really hard if they are not coming into an existing farm operation,” Howard Halderman, CEO of Halderman Real Estate & Farm Management and fellow at the Farm Foundation, said about a young person getting into farming without an existing family farm to the DCNF. “He’s not going to be able to borrow money and effectively service the debt if he tried to just start farming from scratch. That’s really hard today with land at $15,000 an acre and combines at $750,000.”

The average age of farmers has trended upward from 2012 to 2017, rising from an average of 56.3 years to 57.5, following a long-term trend, according to the most recent census of agriculture from the USDA. Only 8% of U.S. producers in 2017 were under the age of 35, while 58% were between the ages of 35 and 64, and 34% were older than 65 years.

Smith argues that the lack of young people in farming comes from older generations who own the farms not relinquishing control of multimillion-dollar operations to people at a young age, while younger people do not want to work under older family members who own the farms.

“Fundamentally, you need better management skills than the average 21 or 22-year-old has, and they haven’t had much experience,” Smith told the DCNF. “What happens in a lot of cases is that the son or daughter who comes back from the farm has had a 20-year career in another area — whether they chose to go into the military after college or whether they chose to go work for ADM or Cargill or whomever — a lot of the people who are 50 are actually just beginning to manage the family’s operation.”

The USDA has a grant program to encourage more young people to farm by providing grants that can be used to further a starting farmer’s education in the industry, according to the USDA. The largest grant offered is $250,000 per year for up to three years and cannot be used toward the cost of capital equipment.

“If I were a 21-year-old dreaming of starting a farm with a few hundred acres and I have very few assets and I don’t have Bill Gates as my father-in-law, then it’s going to be hard to get into farming that way,” Smith told the DCNF. “And that’s just not how people generally get into farming.”

Most U.S. farms are considered family farms, with only 2.4% of farms not being owned by the principal operator, according to the USDA’s America’s Diverse Family Farms report. In terms of farm size, small family farms, meaning those with less than $350,000 in gross profits, accounted for almost half of farmland but only 20% of production.

“It is true that the share of agricultural production for ‘large farms’ as defined by the USDA has increased,” Daren Bakst, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the DCNF. “As explained in this 2017 USDA report, between 1991 and 2015, large farms ‘increased their share of agricultural production from 23 to 41 percent.’ This number has gone up since. That 2017 report also shows that subsidies are increasingly going to these ‘large farms.'”

In 2019, the share of government payments as a part of total farm income increased to 20.35%, as opposed to the recent low of only 7.44% in 2014, according to USA Facts. Despite the recent uptick, the percentage of income from government payments reached an all-time high in 2000, at 40.48%.

The number of people employed in agriculture is expected to shrink by 2% from 2022 to 2032, despite an estimated 115,700 new openings created every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think [owning a farm] can be feasible at any size,” Halderman told the DCNF. “I think the ones that will struggle will be those middle-sized ones with a lot of debt or rented land… The ones that struggle are the ones that own very little; they rent most of it, and they’re in a very competitive area where they have to pay high cash rents to get the chance to rent additional ground. And it’s just really hard to compete with the long-standing family farm operation that probably can pay a very high competitive cash rent, but their fixed cost is less because they are farming more acres.”

The consolidation of farms is more apparent in crop operations as opposed to the livestock sector, due to technological developments that have allowed fewer farmers to manage more acres using innovations in equipment like larger, faster and more precise tractors, planters and sprayers, according to the USDA.

“Consolidation is not, in and of itself, a problem,” Bakst told the DCNF. “It can often be the market adjusting to create efficiencies and best meet consumer demand. In the agricultural industry, this often means lower prices and better-quality food. There should be a concern though, when government intervention, as opposed to market forces, is shaping the structure of an industry. In those situations, the changing structure of an industry isn’t reflecting private actors adjusting to best meet the needs of consumers, but instead reflects the market distortion from the governmental intervention.”

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