Mary Ahearn, a USDA Economic Research Service ag economist doesn’t like to speculate about the aging of the nation’s farmers.
“I like to go by the statistics,” she says.
For the current shortage of younger farmers, those numbers tell the story.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows a 21 percent drop in the number of farmers younger than 45. The over-65 group grew by 18 percent, making up 30 percent of total farmers by 2011.
For the youngest demographic, it’s not just a share but actual numbers of people going down, Ahearn said. In 1982, 16 percent of all principal operators were younger than 35 years old; by 2007, only 5 percent were in that group.
For Ahearn and others tracking numbers for the past 50 years, the changes aren’t surprising.
Average age in agriculture has risen predictably over the years — it has been greater than 50 since at least the 1974 Census of Agriculture.
“It has not been drastic,” Ahearn said.
“Slowly, the average age is creeping up. Each census it’s been a little higher, a little older.”
However, she added that rate has been increasing in the past decade, to age 58 by the latest count. That number is up three years from the average age of 55 in the 2002 census.
Ahearn compared this increase to previous census averages — 54 in 1997, 53 in 1992, 52 in 1987 and 50 in 1982 — to demonstrate the acceleration.
Though Ahearn is reluctant to draw conclusions, she said there are contributing factors to the ag age gap.
“When I want to speculate, I go to some of the farmer groups who say the obvious, like ‘It’s expensive to get into farming,’ ” she said.
The censuses show “a remarkably stable number of farms,” she added, but land values have skyrocketed over the years.
The Iowa Chapter REALTORS Land Institute released a survey this month showing Iowa farmland values continue to rise, up 9.4 percent in the past six months and a total of 17.1 percent in the past year.
The statewide average reached $8,691 per acre.
These costs can make it tough for young or beginning farmers to enter the industry.
The Plains have the lowest percentage of beginning farmers, Ahearn said.
Connected to the falling numbers of young farmers and increased land prices, young farmers derive less income from farming only.
In the 2007 census, 81 percent of farmers 45 and younger supplemented their income with work off the farm, compared to 72 percent in the 45- to 64-year-old demographic and 42 percent over age 65 working off the farm.
Numbers for the five-year 2012 Census haven’t been calculated.
Ahearn expects reports in February 2014, and she’s optimistic. Rising averages are understandable and not all bad, she said.
“People are living longer, it’s not too much of a surprise,” Ahearn said.
“I’m happy farmers are getting older! It’s a good thing.”