How Old Should Farmers Be?

February 4, 2011 03:30 PM

Perhaps I’m just at a sensitive point in my life, but all the hysterics about the average age of farmers increasing is getting up my nose. Being 57 years old is not a national catastrophe.

The arithmetic is pretty straightforward. Were the age distribution even (the same number of farmers at every age), and positing a career that starts at 20 and ends at 70, the average would be 45 at minimum. But farmers are not employees hired for their skills from a pool of workers. They are small business owners. To see if our average age is a concern, a better comparison might be with other small business owners.

Moreover, we are constrained by physical limits: the number of acres available, for one. Consequently, farming success or even entry depends on taking "market share" —not a trivial task.

Few Fast-Track Farmers. Similar to stockbrokers handling investments for clients, tenancy is a trust relationship that is usually based on familiarity and personal ties, not class rank and GRE scores. Other than picking your parents well, there are few "fast tracks" for farmers as there are for the boy wonders on Wall Street. With the growing capital intensity of agriculture, we should no more expect to see 25-year-old producers running million-dollar operations than we do to see bank presidents of the same age. At the same time, the disappearance of midsized farms eliminates the rungs on the ladder that are necessary for steady advancement. There are fewer 80-acre steppingstones and more 400-acre brawls.

The paucity of young farmers is a testament to how the requirements for this work have moved on from upper-body strength to business acumen. While there is a premium for energy and ambition, it pales in importance compared with a proven track record and the ability to relate to landowners.

Our inverted age distribution is also a reassuring indicator of how much better our health care is compared with that of previous generations. Instead of widowed landladies, more old, cranky farmers are still in charge. I’m not sure this is an improvement, but it does nudge the numbers higher.

Farming is a cumulative, "backloaded" career. Your career peak is almost always ahead. A farmer seldom has more power, influence or security than on the day before he retires. Most of us wait decades for this status, and complaints that it should be handed down simply for the sake of chronological symmetry are laughable.

Careers Start Later. As in other professions, many farm managers did not take command until a more senior leader stepped down. If your father didn’t relinquish control until he was 75 and your career "started" at 50, why not reap the fruit of your patience? It is little wonder that during good times especially, farmers tend to stay in the saddle. Nothing will raise the average age to 60 like $6 corn, I would predict.

Now throw in the fact that careers are often starting later in life, in a person’s mid-30s, for example. Rookies, who begin farming after college and other jobs, might be the greatest cause of the higher average.

Finally, the number of older farmers is growing because of consolidation and technology. Fewer farms means fewer entrants. Greater productivity doesn’t bump out guys at the top as often as it eliminates openings. Farmers are older because they are fewer. Nor is this a strictly American phenomenon; the average age of farmers in the UK is 64. (Maybe we’re too young!)

We have aspiring farmers backed up waiting for a chance—not a recruiting problem. The average age at least sends a signal as to what to expect. It might seem unfair, but it is a testament to the sacrifice required of those who are farming now. Aspirants should ask themselves if a 15-year career starting at 55 is worth it.

Worst of all, pointless whining about farmer age exacerbates retirement delays due to sheer irritation, in my opinion. Every accusatory announcement simply tightens the grip of more gnarled fingers on the combine steering wheel.


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