17 August 2009

Few New Farmers

My high school had a relatively vibrant vocational agriculture program, and an active Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter. The FFA was overwhelmingly male and its female counterpart was the Future Homemakers of America (FHA) chapter which was also remarkably vibrant, for the late 1980s.

The clubs were vibrant for the same reason that Southern Baptist churches were vibrant in the South. They were a way for the rural students who made up a large part of the geographically largest high school attendance area in the state to affirm their cultural identity just as their pickups in school parking lot did. The culture divide continues to be intense in that district which recently considered and rejected a proposal to split itself up.

The city kids, like me, gave the vocational agriculture program gruding respect. In good years, those kids made a lot more money than we did in summer food service jobs, and the skills they had to master were numerous. They had to weld, learn fertilizer blends, keep books, operate and repair heavy machinery and more. The FHA, in contrast, seemed like preparation for a future that no one would choose.

I personally wasn't far removed from the dividing line. My father had grown up on a farm, we frequently visited my grandparents there, his brother had stayed a few miles from where he had grown up (although not working a farm), and my four cousins on that side of the family grew up in a part of rural Ohio very like the one that was home to my high school peers.

My 20th high school reunion has come and gone, and in retrospect, the FHA chapter made a lot more sense than the FFA. Lots of my peers have gone on to be homemakers for at least part of their lives. But, the ranks of new farmers have grown very thin.

None of my cousins went into farming or married into farm families.

In 1978, the percentage of farmers age 65 and over, and under age 35 were about the same, 16% or so each. By 2007, the percentage of farmers age 65 and over has nearly doubled to about 30%, and the percentage of farms aged under 35 has declined by about two-thirds to about 5%. The trend measured at five year intervals by the University of Iowa has been steady and unbroken since 1978 (and probably earlier). Just in the past five years:

The average age rose to 57 (from 55) and the ranks of the 75-and-up set increased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2007 . . . the number of those younger than 25 has dropped by nearly a third.

I can't blame people for not entering the field. The cost of a farm is hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more), the income is irregular due to year to year shifts in crop prices and weather, and about half of farm income in many parts of the industry can be traced to government price supports. The number of people employed in farming as a whole has declined every decade since the United States was established to less than 2% of the workforce today (in 1820, 72% of of U.S. workers were engaged in farm occupations; in 1840 it was 69%; in 1860 it was 59%, in 1880 it was 57%, in 1900 it was 38%, in 1920 it was 27%, in 1940 it was 17%, in 1960 it was 6%, in 1980 it was 3%, by 2000 it is a little over 2%; the actual number of people in farm occupations has declined from about 2.9 million in 1820 to 2.1 million in 2000). Populations in farm counties have steadily declined as well.

This isn't all bad. Productivity per acre has steadily risen and so has the acreage per farm. Technology has allowed fewer farms to make more agricultural products. This has freed up people to engage in other pursuits.

The hard question is whether the old farmers are running mostly small unproductive operations (74% of farms produce just 3% of U.S. farm products on 31% of U.S. farm acreage and about 57% of all U.S. farm production comes from just 4% of U.S. farms on 19% of U.S. farm acreage), that will be easily absorbed into a corporate farming complex with more normal demographics, or whether the industry as a whole is careening towards demographic collapse. A large share of all U.S. farms fit into the first category and produce little of the nation's food. I don't know the answer to that question.

I recently noticed a statistic (I'll try to track it down) that indicated that while there had been a collapse in residential and commercial real estate prices, that farm land prices were holding steady. This is corroborated by the fact that the states with the lowest unemployment and healthiest economies in the wake of the financial crisis are farm states. The Dakotas and Iowa are doing great compared to the coasts at the moment. This is not the profile of an industry in crisis.


Michael Malak said...

I doubt the statistics include farms run for hobby, which seem, anecdotally, to be increasing in number and popularity.

And, BTW, does a vineyard count as a farm?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

A vineyard is a farm for statistical purposes.

The statistics on farms include many farms with under $50,000 of gross revenue, which is not enough to be self-supporting (not all hobby farms -- many people farm in the summer and work in the city in the other seasons).

Anecdote is probably not in line with reality on that score.

There are at least three data sources that keep farm numbers honest. Schedule F returns on taxes, which include hobby farms, employment survey data which depends upon self-identification, and farm subsidy rolls (which are narrower). I believe that my numbers are based on Schedule F returns. This would not include farms for which no tax returns are filed such as large gardens for personal consumption, but would include small farms for which tax returns are filed.