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The Average Farmer Is Pretty Old: Here's What the USDA Is Doing About It

James WhiteIt’s no real secret that farming in America is an industry in deep crisis. With each passing year, the age of the average farmer increases, and we see fewer and fewer young people adopting this difficult but supremely rewarding way of life. With nothing less than our nation’s food supply on the line, it’s a big problem.

According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, the average age of farmers in the U.S. currently sits at 57 and is steadily rising. There’s only one farmer under the age of 35 for every six farmers over 65.

Considering the important place that farming has in the American way of life, as well as the deep personal satisfaction that comes from homesteading and other forms of small-scale agriculture, this is a serious problem. Thankfully, the USDA is making strides to improve the situation. But will it be enough?

The Roots of the Problem

Part of the problem comes from the fact that farmers and their families, once they retire, have a tendency to remain in residence on the family farm. And more and more, modern farmers are encouraging their children to seek out a living elsewhere, thanks in part to the lack of support the U.S. government is showing farmers these days.

farmer couples

As a result, the USDA is renewing its focus on encouraging brand-new farmers to adopt this lifestyle, to fill the void left by families exiting the industry.

A website specifically targeted at new farmers received a complete overhaul recently, making it much cleaner and easier to use — a clear gambit designed to speak directly to a generation that grew up using the Web. According to Eric Hansen, of the National Young Farmers Coalition, the website is a “watershed moment” for a country that’s lost its focus on and esteem for the people who keep this country fed.

Empowering New Farmers

But you’d be right to point out that a new website isn’t enough to revitalize this ailing industry. While the New Farmers website is designed specifically to highlight the sort of USDA assistance that’s been going on for decades — farm subsidies, loans, day-to-day guidance and other important resources — it’s also set out to give these forms of assistance an overhaul of their own.

The short version is that the USDA is shifting its funding toward encouraging, educating and empowering brand-new farmers who want to break into the industry. It’s a difficult thing to do, seeing that Congress holds the purse-strings for the USDA and has been characteristically glacial in addressing the problem. So, while the Department’s source of funds hasn’t changed much in recent years, how it’s used is in the process of changing significantly.

One way the USDA is changing its monetary policies is to redirect funding toward new and upstart farmers. In 2009, for example, 30.5 percent of USDA-backed loans were earmarked for beginning farmers. But by 2017, USDA leadership hopes to raise that figure to 57-60 percent to reflect the changing face of the farming industry.

Hansen is quick to point out that existing farmers won’t be left in the lurch, but it’s clear that established homesteaders and farmers don’t face the barriers of entry that new farmers do. It’s a matter of priorities.

Another development that’s making great strides toward turning farming into a more enticing career choice is the rise of more efficient technologies. Companies like CAT have made a point to develop equipment and machinery that prioritize sustainability and efficiency — characteristics that can greatly lower the cost of entry for new farmers. To put it another way, farmers have better and better tools at their disposal to help lift some of the burdens that accompany a life in agriculture.

In other words, what we’re seeing in the agriculture industry is an uncommon example of the public and private sectors working together for the common good.

It’s a National Crisis

But apart from the question of funding, there’s also a distinct challenge before us: education. To put it simply, farming isn’t really thought of by young people today as an obvious career choice. The cause of this, or perhaps the result, is that the USDA is simply not “present” enough in the collective consciousness to encourage the younger generations to seek this way of life. For example: Did you know you could get a USDA-backed mortgage with no down payment if you buy a home in a less developed, more agriculture-heavy part of your state? If you didn’t, you’re hardly alone.

The truth is, the USDA is doing great work, but it’s not enough. The next step is for our Congress to re-address their priorities and empower farmers the way they used to. In the words of Nick Offerman, we must “exalt the farmer” and the good they do in our lives — nothing less than that will reverse this crisis.