Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Second Oldest Profession

No, I didn’t mean it that way! Here is my question: What is the second oldest aged profession in the USA? If you answered farmers, you would be correct. At 58 years of age, it is second only to drawbridge operators. We are neither building many drawbridges, nor is there much of a future for advancement in that field. So why is farming not attracting young people while keeping old folks on the farm?

I raised these questions during my talk to rural legislators from around the country at the SARL Conference in St. Louis. My third key in BoomtownUSA was Leveraging Your Resources and I think that many rural communities have some largely underexploited resources at their disposal. The problem is that these resources never get developed either for lack of vision, money or both. I also think that it is much easier to step out on a limb when you are 30 rather than when you are 70, so to fully exploit agricultural potential it is imperative to get more young people into the game.

Where did we go so wrong, so fast? Looking at the graphic here you can see that in Iowa (and the rest of the states are very similar) the percentage of farmers under 35 years of age went from 20% in 1987 to 1% only 15 years later. Meanwhile, the number over the age of 65 more than doubled from 16% to 35%. Essentially we went from one young farmer matched with one older farmer in 1987 to a 35:1 ratio of old to young in only 15 years!

Look at some of the other stats:
90% of farmers either work off of the farm or are over 65 years of age
48% of the land is owned by people over the age of 65 (24% over 75)
20% is owned by heirs out of state

It doesn’t make sense to me that we’ve got farmers still farming into such late years especially when you consider that farming continues to be one of the most hazardous professions. One participant at the SARL Conference told me, “I know of one 101 year old that is still farming with his 82 year old son.”

My blame for this demographic imbalance is the continuing progression of farm bills that both raise the cost of entry from farm subsidies being factored into higher land costs and discourage young innovative farmers from looking at alternative crops, techniques and enterprises because of the safety in sticking to the subsidized ones.

Payment caps that have been proposed would only aggravate the situation, resulting in numerous, often bogus firms and partnerships being set up that evade the letter of the law but that get around all barriers put forth by legislators. One immediate result would be an increase in the cash renting of land as opposed to more crop sharing, which helps to spread the risk of farming over both the landlord and farmer.

I would love to see rural communities blossom with a growth in new farmers. We could do that in this country if we refocused a small portion of the gigantic farm subsidies away from the traditional large commodity crops and instead focused them upon developing new, young farmers in niche and specialty areas. We’d still produce the same amount of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton but we’d have an opportunity to bring back more farmers into our small towns, the type of farmers who would need a local hardware store, ag input supplier and other small businesses that today are lacking in too many towns.

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