Farmers don’t age gracefully. Being successful in agriculture requires a strong will and an independent mind. It is why most farmers work 40-plus years toiling in all sorts of extremes, and the stress, long hours and crazy weather conditions wear on a body. Let’s face it, most experienced farmers and ranchers look more like Joe Pesci than Sean Connery. However, it’s not the look of most farmers that concern me. It’s the fact that there are so many farmers who look alike.
The statistics tell us that the aging agricultural community could be the most pressing challenge our industry faces, beyond even water, pesticides, labor and land use. According to data from the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture (a new one is scheduled to be surveyed in 2017), the average farm operator in the United States is 58.3 years old, up from 57.1 in 2007 and 54.9 years in 2002.
Closer to home, the numbers are even more stunning. In September of 2016, the Oregon State University Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems partnered with Portland State University to release a report on the future of Oregon’s agricultural land. Here are some nuggets from that document:
- 60 years was the average age of Oregon farmers in 2012, compared to an average age of 55 in 2002 and 50 years in 1982.
- 24 percent of all Oregon farmers in 2012 were beginning farmers, down from 32 percent in 2002. Although 15 percent of beginning farmers are under the age of 35, nearly half of beginning farmers are aged 45 or older.
- Farm operators aged 55 and older control 64 percent of Oregon’s agricultural land, or 10.45 million acres, which could change hands in the next 20 years.
So, we’re getting older. The younger generation isn’t coming to the party, and there’s about to be a huge transition of land.
With the escalating value of that land, no wonder it’s difficult to energize the industry with young farm owners. Thanks to strong land use policies, the farm land isn’t likely to be paved over for a strip mall, but what we are seeing is venture capital and large corporations being introduced into Oregon’s ag mix more and more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Oregon agriculture is currently comprised of 97 percent family farms, and that statistic is going to change. Being family dominated resonates with an urban populace, and as the percentage of family farms dwindles the louder a misinformed public is likely to become.
More than half of Oregon’s farms are likely to change hands over the next decade. As an industry we don’t have the luxury of debating this issue for the next five years before we take action. We need to start implementing programs now that help our farms and ranches to successfully transition from one generation to the next.
Every operation is different and has its own set of circumstances. There is no cookie cutter program that will benefit the masses. However, there are strategies that every family-owned farm operation should consider.
Father Time is responsible for that Joe Pesci complex, but with the proper planning you can ensure the legacy of your farm or ranch operation through the next generation.
Geoff Horning, Executive Director