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Boomers Keep Farming, But Need To Share the Future

By Urban C. Lehner DTN/TELVENT February 24, 2012

This is a column about boomer farmers and farm booms. I will try to make it relevant to readers who care about agriculture but tire of the Baby Boom generation’s absorption with its own self-importance. Still, if you feel your time would be better spent reading some other article on DTN/The Progressive Farmer, watching a zombie movie or plucking your eyebrows, I will understand.

I plead guilty to membership in this narcissistic generation. We’re the 76 million born in the “Baby Boom” between 1946 and 1964, after the soldiers returned from World War II. By sheer dint of numbers our passage through adolescence, young adulthood and middle age changed America’s economy, politics and cultural norms again and again.

Now we’re approaching retirement, and this passage too will make waves, waves that will batter stock prices, consumer spending and the Social Security and Medicare systems. But guess what? Many of us aren’t retiring. Some of us want to keep working. Some have to. The percentage of over 65s in the labor force has been rising for 20 years and is expected to continue rising.

More than most boomers, boomer farmers seem determined to stick with it. In USDA’s 2007 census the average age of a farmer was 57.1, and while the majority of farmers were between 45 and 64, the fastest-growing group of farm operators was 65 and older. The census methodology may undercount young farmers a bit, but there’s no denying the trend.

And who can blame boomer farmers for hanging in there? They are, on average, healthier than their parents were at the same age and expect to live longer. Their minds are sharp. Advances in technology have enabled them to farm with less manual labor. Some can’t afford to stop working. Others have done well, giving them the resources to hire help and do less of the heavy lifting themselves.

Continuing to farm puts off a knotty problem: transition. Here’s where the farm boom enters the discussion. Soaring land prices not only help keep dad in the game; they make it harder for him to feel like he’s being fair to all his children when he hands over the reins. Those who will work the farm are getting that much more; compensating the other children, even partially, becomes that much harder.

Soaring prices also dampen older farmers’ interest in selling their land. They swallow hard at the capital-gains taxes they’ll have to pay.

Perhaps the most important reason some stay on is they love what they’re doing. Can’t imagine doing anything else. Can’t imagine living anywhere else, at least in summer; winter in the RV or condo in Arizona or Texas is imaginable.

If that’s the way they feel, who can fault them?

Their unwillingness to leave does, however, make it harder for others to enter. No surprise, then, that the 2007 USDA census found that beginning farmers — those with less than 10 years experience — had an average age of 48. A third were over 55.

Because the boomers aren’t budging, there isn’t as much land on the market for beginners to buy. Because farmland prices are booming, they can’t afford what there is. Between them, boomer farmers and the farm boom are inadvertently erecting barriers to entry.

There’s little that can be done in the short term to reverse the graying of American agriculture. And it’s not an altogether bad trend; age does sometimes bring something resembling wisdom.

But our agriculture would be more dynamic if younger people played a larger role. Younger farmers are more likely to take risks with new crops and be early adopters of new technologies. Keeping successors on hold through middle age is, as my colleague Marcia Taylor puts it, “about as healthy as Prince Charles’ long career as a monarch in waiting.”

It’s time to redouble our efforts to encourage young farmers. We need to give them more loans, training, mentoring and moral support. It’s time for farmers who don’t have successors to start looking for beginning farmers who can eventually take over their farms.

DTN/The Progressive Farmer has created an awards program for the nation’s Best Young Farmers. You can read about the latest group of winners in the February issue of The Progressive Farmer, or at….

No one can make the boomer farmers bow out if they don’t want to. But if we work at it, we can stop American agriculture from getting even grayer.

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By Urban C. Lehner DTN/TELVENT February 24, 2012