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Next Set of Farmers Eager to Take the Reins

March 9, 2013
By: Sara Schafer, Farm Journal Media Business and Crops Editor
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Today’s young farmers bring energy, special skills

Susan Hodges is excited about the future of agriculture, which is why she chose it as her profession and is employed by a family-owned cattle and grain operation in Valleyford, Wash. In the meantime, Susan, 24, is counting the days until she can return to her family’s farm, which produces several varieties of wheat and lentils.

"Right now there is not enough room for me to return to the family farm," Hodges says. "I’m waiting for the opportunity to buy or rent ground close to home. It is really important to keep the farm in my family."

Hodges is a classic example of today’s young and beginning farmers. She recognizes the challenges involved in farming, such as farm transitions and acquiring land, but also knows those obstacles can be overcome.

USDA recently released a comprehensive report about new farmers and ranchers, which it defines as those who have managed an operation for 10 years or less. In 2011, out of the 2.1 million farms, 22% (or 455,868) were classified as beginning farms.

Overall, the number of beginning farmers has been on the decline for at least two decades. In 1982, 38% of principal farm operators had less than 10 years of experience. In 2007, the most-recent Census of Agriculture, that number comes in at 26%. During this same time period, the average age of U.S. principal farm operators has increased from 50 to 58.

Mary Ahearn, USDA agricultural economist, says the financial requirements of starting a farm operation is typically the biggest barrier for young producers. "The challenge of acquiring land in today’s market has likely been exacerbated by the prolonged rise in farm real estate values," she says.

Around 30% of beginning farmers hold a four-year college degree, which is more than established producers. Also, slightly more beginning farmers are women, 12%, compared with established farmers, which is 10%.

The average size of beginning farms is 200 acres, which compares to 434 of established farms. Due to their smaller farm size, beginning farmers account for only 10% of the total value of U.S. agricultural production.

Only a small percentage of beginning farmers don’t own any land, but the majority rent land. In general, beginning farmers are more likely to purchase land from a non-relative, while established producers tend to inherit or purchase land from relatives.

Yet, even with these obstacles, young farmers are finding ways to be profitable. Off-farm income for the primary operator and spouse can assist with living expenses and expansion options.

Also, Ahearn says, these farms tend to include livestock and beef cattle, compared with row crops and dairy. "Beginning farms are experiencing success in a variety of ways, and no one path to success is dominant as beginning farms seek to find their niche."

Overcome the Land Challenge

Securing land for rent or purchase is commonly cited as the toughest hurdle for beginning farmers. USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) has several loans and funding options specifically for beginning and young farmers.

Mark Mudd, FSA senior farm loan officer in Fulton, Mo., says FSA loans can provide a great foundation for a young farmer’s operation. "The problem for a lot of young farmers is coming up with a down payment on the farm," Mudd says. "The goal of these programs is to help overcome that big obstacle."

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - March 2013

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