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Aging farmers and fewer farms in the new agriculture census should be a 'wake up call,' says Vilsack

A combine harvests corn in a field in northeast Missouri. Crop insurance and protections for commodities including corn will likely be a big part of the 2023 Farm Bill.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A combine harvests corn in a field in northeast Missouri. Crop insurance and protections for commodities including corn will likely be a big part of the 2023 Farm Bill.

The average farmer in the U.S. is now 58 years old, according to the Census of Agriculture, released Tuesday. There are also fewer farms in the country than there were in the last census.

The average age of farmers in the U.S. is continuing to increase while the number of farms declines, according to new numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

“This survey, in addition to all the amazing work and data that it contains, is a wake up call,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at an event for the census release on Tuesday.

The average American farmer is now 58.1 years old, which is an increase of about half a year compared to the last census conducted in 2017. Farmers who are 65 and older increased by 12% in this census, while farmers aged 35-64 decreased by 9%. The department found farmers are generally younger in Midwest states and older in Southern states.

At the same time, farms are growing bigger on average and declining in number. That’s a sign of consolidation, said Brad Summa, director of the Heartland Regional Field Office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“We're just becoming more efficient,” Summa said. “But that efficiency kind of comes at a cost. To be a really big, large, producing farm, there's a lot of overhead. And it's tough to break into that if you are a new and beginning farmer.”

That consolidation is especially apparent when you look at changes in different sizes of farms, Summa said. Between the 2017 census and the 2022 census, every size of farm saw a decline in total numbers, except for the largest size — farms with 5,000 acres or more.

In the new census, the total number of farms decreased 6.9%, to 1.9 million. Farms now cover 880 million acres, which is a 20 million acre decline in five years. Vilsack said that is like losing all of the Northeastern states except Connecticut.

“I sincerely hope that we take this information very seriously, and that we understand that it need not be that every five years we report fewer farms and less farmland,” Vilsack said. “It doesn't have to be.”

There are some signs of growth in the census. The number of young farmers, less than 35 years old, increased slightly in the 2022 census. The number of beginner farmers with less than 10 years of experience also increased. That’s despite the difficulties that new farmers can face, especially in finances, said Mark Schleusener, the Illinois state statistician for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“It can be difficult to gather enough capital and, in particular, access to land, whether you own it or rent it,” Schleusener said. “That's very difficult for a young person to do. It's expensive.”

High land prices also show there is still demand to get into agriculture, Summa said.

“It's not because there aren't people who want to farm,” Summa said. “It's not like we have vast acreages of farms out there that nobody wants to farm because everybody in the area is too old, or just doesn't want to do it. We're continuing to see record prices of farmland when it goes up for sale.”

The federal government has been taking a regular census of farmers since 1840 and the surveys are now conducted every five years. The census released Tuesday was collected in 2022 and had a 61% response rate.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Kate Grumke