Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Doom and gloom! We will all die without young farmers!

I've written about the medias obsession with young farmers before, and now I see that backyard poultry is writing a piece that is titled

Young Farmers Going Extinct and it got picked up by a hardware blog (and your humble writer here)

Extinct is a pretty alarmist title.  In that story the author talks about a study that says that the average age of farmers in wyoming was increasing, and that the percentage of all farmers that were younger was decreasing.

First, lets talk about what a "farmer" is.  I'm going to presume that someone who they count as a "farmer" is actually a landowner; because if they count people like immigrant workers, the average age is pretty low -- I'd say way under 35 -- and the total number of farmworkers is probably either steady or decreasing (as automation makes it possible to farm with less labor, but very slowly).

Some types of farm work are a young mans game, and part of the automation push that american farms have is that it's hard to get a young person to buck bales of hay for minimum wage, or do any of the other jobs that are a lot harder than playing with an xbox.

So the average age of landowners is increasing.  I've got to question why this is an issue.  Someone will work that land if there's a profit to be made.

I've written many times about farms that didn't work out for one reason or the other.  But I'll bet that if you go to the land that thundering hooves farmed, or tlc ranch ( farmed, you'll find people today that are tilling and farming that same ground.

Good farmland stays in production basically forever -- at least I'd hope so.  In my area they keep flooding and ruining good farmland because there's no cost too high to pay for salmon recovery (see footnote 1), but that's rare in agricultural areas.

Take home lesson?

There will be no shortage of food, or famers, in the near or far future.  If the labor situation does get worse, we'll either automate our way out of it, or we'll raise wages to the point where it becomes competitive with other employment choices that people have.

We don't have articles wondering why the average age of CEOs is increasing, or the average bank president is 60 years old.  We probably should move right on to more important topics.  Like what we're going to eat tonight, or what the cat is doing in the kitchen.


Anonymous said...

Love "What is the cat doing in the kitchen?" That's going to become my new go-to phrase!
Yes, I've never been able to get myself worked up over this either.

Bill Gauch said...

From a Southern New Englander's perspective, this is a more dire news story, I guess. The biggest issue is that fewer people (actual people, not corporations) are going into the farming business than are coming out of it (retirement or death). One of the biggest reasons is the cost of land. If a 20-something has an interest in farming around here, his options are to move to a place where agricultural land is cheap AND available AND close to a market. There are fewer and fewer places like that available. The most telling aspect of this statistic is that farming is changing from an occupation to a mix of rich-man's-hobby and a corporate enterprise. The one promising sign I see is the emergence of micro farms. Around here, there are a couple people with 1/3 acre house lots with farm stands out front who grow everything in their backyards. As for farmland always staying farmland, I wish I could support your theory. Unfortunately, from what I have seen, farmland goes one of three ways... House lots, box store strip malls, or, rarely, hobby farms with no real production. The most offensive thing I've seen happen to some of the last remaining farmland near me is a "sustainable" farm. One of their biggest efforts was to plant goji berries in the undergrowth of scrub trees which started to reclaim some old farmland to create a food forest.

Nick in RI said...

I used to be in a rock band. We played a lot for free, sometimes we got paid, I think the most I ever made was $40 for a night. The problem with being a musician is that unless you're really big, it's hard to make a living because there are so many people who enjoy doing it and will do it for nothing or for costs.

Farming is the same way. There are a ton of people who'd love to be small scale farmers. The farmers markets are full of them. It's basically impossible to make a living with eggs or goat milk or hay because you're competing against people who do it for a hobby. (I'm reminded of a scene from the old series "I, Claudius" where the prostitute was complaining about the having to compete against hobbyists. "My hobby is gardening," she sneered.)

To make money as a farmer, you need to either be big, or good enough to beat out the hobbyists.

The modern farms that produce the lion's share of food in this country resemble factories more than anything. Their owners resemble factory owners more than the popular stereotype of the farmer as a guy in overalls out digging weeds. I don't think anyone is bemoaning the fact that the average age of factory owners is increasing.

There has been a long-term trend in the US that as automation has taken hold, farm employment has dropped. If you look back 130 years, 90% of the workforce worked in agriculture. Now it's maybe 3%. This has been devastating for rural communities, which have been depopulated. And it's still going on. I think this is the real phenomenon people are seeing when they talk about the increasing age of farmers.

Cathy said...

I was thinking about this just last night after looking at a map with the average age of farmers by area. You know many of those ages averaged in are those of semi retired or retired farmers whose children are running the business.

I'd also recently been in a discussion about breaks for family farms to be able to pass their valuable land to the next generation. I argued that the issues are the same for other family businesses. Farmers can get help with estate planning like anyone else and should start gifting the property to there heirs early to avoid some of the estate taxes.

And if some land has to be sold there are plenty of young farmers wanting to buy land.

Anonymous said...

In my area, good farmland is being converted to suburban housing developments very quickly. It's even being converted into large apartment complexes. It's also being converted to strip malls and car dealerships, to serve the people living in the houses and apartments. I can't agree that good farmland stays in production- around here, it's disappearing, and that makes me sad.

Karin L said...

For me it's not so much the prospect of wanting to buy land, even though that may come in a few years or so, but the consideration and the possibility of inheriting or, I guess, "buying" land from my own parents (now just my mother) that has been in the family for over 40 years. The biggest concern with getting farmland from parents is the Capital Gains tax that the federal government has put in place in the mid 1980s. In my opinion, that tax, which is around $800,000, seemed to be put in place to discourage the younger generation to take over the farm. Of course there were (and are) other reasons that children where discouraged from wanting to take over, from the fact that a person can't make near the amount of money raising crops and livestock as they can with a white-collar job in an office tower, to all the hard work that needs to be done just to make ends meet.

Then of course there's the cost of the land, and some old farmers just don't want to let it all go and live in the city either. Once it's in your blood it's hard to let it go.

But as far as capital gains is concerned, at least there's exemptions in place where those in arm's-reach of the landowner (spouse, child, etc.) can get the capital gains exemption and buy the land without having to pay the government extra.

You bet we need more young farmers. There's no arguing that.