By: Elizabeth Ousley
In the last thirty years, the average age of U.S. farmers has grown from 50.5 years to 58.3 years.[i] Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farm operators fell by 90,000.[ii] America’s farmers are an economic asset in stimulating our rural economies and putting food on our tables. However, as American farmers retire, there is a concern that few emerging farmers will replace them. With only six percent of farmers under the age of thirty-five in 2012, the future of farming is a major concern.[iii] If the aging farmer trend continues, America risks the loss of jobs and control over its food supply, and the decline of rural America. The solution is to incentivize young people to enter the farming industry by easing access to capital, credit, and land.
A college degree is necessary in most industries, thus to address the aging farmer concern, it is beneficial to target college graduates interested in agriculture. The high startup costs are enough to deter any college graduate with less than ample savings and minimal student loan debt. When framed this way, a young farmer would be sinking before he even thought about swimming.
There are studies, however, that diminish the concern of the aging farmer. It has been proposed that the aging farmer mirrors the aging U.S. labor force as a whole.[iv] Addressing this in 2013, Ohio State Professor Carl Zulauf suggested the farming population has grown persistently older since the 1980s.[v] Zulauf believes this is consistent with the capital-intensive qualities of farming and, as a result, there will be an influx of young farmers in later years.[vi]
Yet, the debate has drawn a number of responses that lend support to its aging reality. The Agricultural Act of 2014 demonstrates the U.S. government’s support for young farmers by allotting funds to assist the transfer of farmland and altering the acreage limit so that more farmers may qualify for the federal loans.[vii] On a smaller scale, West Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture is attempting to inspire young people to pursue careers in agriculture by creating a competition for students to present why local food matters.[viii] The winner will serve as an honorary Commissioner of Agriculture during the State Fair.[ix]
One stable solution proposed by the National Young Farmers Coalition is that young farmers should be included in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which provides debt relief for professionals serving in the public interest sector.[x] The PSLF is a long-term commitment partnership between the federal government and borrowers that requires the borrower to make ten years’ worth of on-time, income-based payments in exchange for the cancellation of their loan balance.[xi] The public service farmers contribute to their rural communities by cultivating and supplying locally grown food onto American tables, and therefore, the federal government should afford them this classification.[xii]
The PSLF approach almost guarantees that young farmers will stay in the industry for at least ten years. There is also a high probability of success in targeting young farmers since many have the time, energy, and resilience to see their projects through.[xiii] If the legislature would adopt this approach, it could lead to the continuation and enhancement of our rural economies while simultaneously combating the aging farmer concern.
[i] Danielle Kurtzleben, The Rapidly Aging U.S. Farmer, U.S. News (Feb. 24, 2014), https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/02/24/us-farmers-are-old-and-getting-much-older.
[ii] USDA, Nat’l Agric. Stat. Serv., 2012 Census of Agriculture (2014),https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_US/usv1.pdf.
[iii] USDA, Nat’l Agric. Stat. Serv., Beginning Farmers: Characteristics of Farmers by Years on Current Farm (2014), https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Beginning_Farmers/Highlights_Beginning_Farmers.pdf.
[iv]Carl Zulauf, Putting the Age of U.S. Farmers in Perspective, Ohio St. U. Dep’t of Agric., Envtl., and Dev. Econ. Publ’ns (Oct. 2013), https://aede.osu.edu/sites/aede/files/publication_files/Putting%20the%20Age%20of%20US%20Farmers%20in%20Perspective%20-%20Zulauf.pdf.
[vii] Agric. Act of 2014, Pub. L. No. 113-79, 128 Stat. 649 (2014) (codified as amended in scattered sections of U.S.C.); see also James Williamson, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers and the Agricultural Act of 2014, USDA ERS (June 2, 2014), https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2014/june/beginning-farmers-and-ranchers-and-the-agricultural-act-of-2014/.
[viii] Local Food: Why it Matters, WV Dep’t of Agric. (2017), http://www.agriculture.wv.gov/SiteCollectionDocuments/Commissioner%20of%20Agriculture%20for%20a%20Day%20Contest%20(web)2.pdf.
[x] Eric Hansen et al., Farming is Public Service: A Case to Add Farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, Nat’l Young Farmers Coalition (2015), http://www.youngfarmers.org/reports/FIPSReport.pdf.