The Economic Research Service recently published a brief with updated statistics on beginning farmers, defined as those who have been farming (on their current farm) for less than 10 years. The data forming the foundation of the report are from the Census of Agriculture and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey. The report’s findings defy my preconceived notions about beginning farmers, who I think of as farmers under the age of 35, equally likely to be male or female, and who are in the business of raising specialty crops. (Of course, this is exactly why data are important!)
Note that the beginning farmer referred to in the statistics below are the primary farm operator. Unless otherwise specified, the statistics refer to the year 2011.
- Beginning farmers (average age 49) were, on average, younger than established farmers (average age 60).
- Forty nine percent of beginning farmers were in the age range of 35-49, while 14 percent were less than 35 years old (this surprised me).
- Twelve percent of beginning farmers were women (another surprise).
- Slightly more than 5 percent of beginning farmers raised specialty crops, while approximately 30 percent were farming “general livestock” (this, too, was a surprise).
- Thirty percent of beginning farmers did not produce marketable commodities (in comparison to 25 percent of established farmers).
- In 2010, beginning farmers were more likely to directly market to consumers or restaurants (18 percent vs 13 percent for established farmers).
- Beginning farmers selling directly to consumers, as compared to those selling through an intermediary, were less likely to make a profit.
- In 2011, the average beginning farmer operated a small farm – about half the size of that operated by an established farmer (200 acres, as compared to 434 acres).
- A rule of thumb is that a farm needs to bring in about $25,000 to $30,000 in revenue a year before returns are positive; only 1/4 of beginning farmers earned over $25,000 on the farm (it would be interesting to see how revenues change with farming experience, so we can compare sales for a 2nd year farm to sales from a 9th year farm).
- The average beginning farmer income (from the farm) was $1,902 (compared to more than $18,116 for more experienced farmers). But total household income from off farm sources was higher for the beginning farmer (about $89K vs. $68K for experienced farmer).
I would love to see a geographic breakdown of these statistics; for example, how do the averages for peri-urban farmers compare to those for rural farmers? And how does the below 35 year old group compare to the next age group, 35-49? Also, the report is surprisingly quiet on the topic of farming across ethnic groups.
The answers to the questions about the success and challenges for farmers by age are more than intellectual exercises: they important for the future of the food supply of the US, and should ideally guide policies that facilitate the development of the younger segment of the farm production sector.