Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Whither the Young Farmer?

Much is made about the average age of the American farmer. USDA Secretary Vilsack was once quoted as saying, "We have an aging farming population. If left unchecked, this could threaten our ability to produce the food we need – and also result in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of working lands that we rely on to clean our air and water." That's serious stuff, but a more careful analysis reveals that the situation isn't so dire after all.

Analysis by Carl Zulauf indicates that farmers are aging no faster than the general public. Additionally, we would expect, he says, that farmers would be older than the average business owner because modern agriculture is so capital intensive. Todd Kuethe breaks down farmer age by number of farms, acreage, and income, and notes that

The largest share of the income of the sector is captured managers between the age of 45 and 64. Just over half of Illinois' primary farm operators are between ages 45 and 64 (51.5%). This group, however, represents 60% of Illinois' agricultural land and 62.9% of the state's farm income.
Zulauf's observation that capital intensive industries are likely to have older sole proprietors on average is especially interesting given the current land price environment. As Brent Gloy and David Widmar note, land values are currently quite high, but a combination of low returns and rising interest rates could pave the way for a downward correction in land values. I made a similar argument about land values in Texas last October. The potential for a decline in land values may open up opportunities for younger farmers to buy in.

Another potential driver of the increasing age of the average farmer is increased regulation. As I've documented in the past, regulation by the EPA has increased almost continuously over the last 4 decades. Now more than ever farmers are burdened by the cost of regulation by the EPA. This increased regulatory cost creates economies of scale which might serve to hinder entry into the industry.

There are likely many causes of the increase in the average age of the American farmer, but it seems the worst thing that will happen is consolidation. If land values correct and young farmers are able to maintain access to credit, the trend of the aging farmer may at the very least slow down.

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