Are Young Farmers Really Going Extinct? Or Is Their Demise Greatly Exaggerated?

In less than 20 years, there will be no farmers or ranchers under the age of 35 left in the state of Wyoming, according to a study published in the U.S. journal Rangelands last week.

Researchers analyzed demographic trends among farm and ranch operators in the state from 1920 to 2007, and as you would expect, they found the farm population is getting older. Using census data, their models forecast there being no operators younger than 35 by 2033 and an average farmer age of 60 by 2050 (you can read the study here.) Just for context, according to the USDA National Ag Statistics Service, in 2007, there were 8,800 farms and ranches operating in Wyoming, with a total land area of 34.4 million acres and cattle accounting for over half of farm cash receipts.

Average age of farmers in Wyoming (from Rangelands: December 2014, Vol. 36, No. 6, pp. 7-14)

Average age of farmers in Wyoming (from Rangelands: December 2014, Vol. 36, No. 6, pp. 7-14)

While the study focused on trends in the state 600 kilometres south of the Saskatchewan border, many of the same factors are at play on Canadian farms. So do these findings have merit? Will young farmers really go extinct?

As someone whose still in that category, I’d argue it’s less of a problem than the headlines are making this out to be.

First of all, to say there will be absolutely zero farmers under the age of 35 is a tad ridiculous. Sure, the linear trend line might be headed in that direction, but you can’t realistically believe the statement — with no margin for error — that not a single person born after 1998 will be farming in Wyoming in 2033.

Age distribution of Canadian farmers

Age distribution of Canadian farmers (click to enlarge)

Secondly, and more importantly, it would be interesting to see whether the trend has continued over the last eight years, which, with some exceptions, have been some of the most prosperous years ever for North American farmers. There’s been renewed enthusiasm regarding the future of farming — just look at the rising enrolment numbers for many agriculture schools, or the investments farmers across the continent are making in the future value of land. There are still significant obstacles, but strong profit margins mean more young people are wanting to farm.

Perhaps we’re even approaching a tipping point where we could see the average age of farmers decline, with a generational transition. The number of farmers under the age of 35 might actually rise, as there will be opportunities to take over from the large number of farmers approaching retirement.

What do you think? Is it fair to say young farmers won’t exist in 2033? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Kelvin Heppner

Kelvin Heppner is a field editor and radio host for RealAgriculture and RealAg Radio. He's been reporting on agriculture on the prairies and across Canada since 2008(ish). He farms with his family near Altona, Manitoba, and is on Twitter at @realag_kelvin. @realag_kelvin

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4 Comments

ward

The weakness in that study is that they only asked the age of the principal farm operator (typically Dad or Mom in a family farm/ranch) and the tertiary operators (children) were not accounted for. This skews the operator age statistics.

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Doyle

I fully agree that extinction of under 35 will not happen. But, even as it has been good to see less gray hair at farm meetings these days I firmly believe many young, educated, and passionate wannabe farmers are not being given the chance they need to get their foot in the door and see what it will take to be a farm owner. Too many accountants and advisors believe the only way someone can start farming is to essentially inherit it. The numbers have changed, but it needs to be shown it is really no more difficult than it was 40 and 80 years ago – when I and earlier my father started. Mentoring in all the aspects of the business and sharing the risks as a new generation gets in with both feet is a model that myst become more common as it is one of only a few ways to do it. For the sake of at least delaying the onset of a modern day feudal system all ways to continue independent farm owners/operators living in our rural communities must be promoted.

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P_B

The study is a classic case of using statistics in a goofy way! But, with larger farms will come fewer farmers, so we won’t need as many under age 35 farmers to replace the retiring farmers, who with land pretty well paid for can make a nice living on a smaller operation. Unless of course we have a paradigm shift from the almost truism in ag that “bigger is always better!”

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