Photograph by Spencer Millsap
Photograph by Spencer Millsap

Where Will All The Farmers Go?

Of all the things kids are asked whether they’d like to be when they grow up—doctors, presidents, radio DJs—it’s rare to hear someone under 15 proclaim with loud abandon that he wants to be a farmer. Which is curious, considering the rich history of American agriculture and the fact that it’s a job that will always be in demand.

Which is not to say that farming is ever a sure thing. Farming is hard. It’s unpredictable and risky putting your livelihood at the behest of rain and fertilizer. As a result, farming has become increasingly top heavy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for every farmer under 25, there are five farmers over 75. The disparity can partly be explained by the experience scale—23-year-olds simply don’t have the know-how to own or maintain their own land. They also don’t have capital like tractors, silos, and combine bins.

But the simpler explanation is that younger people tend to be attracted to other industries that are more predictable and less physically intense.

This sets up a dilemma for all countries that derive large portions of their GDP from agriculture. What happens when farmers age out and there’s nobody to replace them? “I think what we’ll see is over half of the agricultural land in the U.S. changing hands over the next two decades,” says Andrew McElwaine, president of America’s Farmland Trust. The simple reason is age. The average U.S. farmer is 57. In ag-heavy Brazil that number is slightly lower, but still above average compared to other industries.

João Staut, a former coffee farmer in Sao Paulo state, sees big problems ahead for coffee farming, which is dominated by small family farmers. More than eighty percent of coffee in Brazil—the world’s largest producer—is grown by people who own fewer than 250 acres. As each of them gets older, Staut says, no one knows what will happen to their land. Coffee is a traditionally low margin business. Without a farmer to defend his crop, the land may be scooped up by sugar or soybean farmers chasing larger profits.

But in other parts of the world, different market dynamics may be at play, including the increasing profitability of farming. U.S. crop yields and land values have never been higher. Last year, net income from U.S. farms topped $130 billion. The value of farm assets like land and equipment rose seven percent from 2012 to 2013, accounting for a collective total of $3 trillion. Simple economics would suggest that as fewer people want to farm, yields will decline and food prices will rise, which will attract more people to farming.

The bigger change may materialize in who owns farms. If Farmer Bill in Nebraska can’t get his kids to take over his corn fields, he’ll sell them, and probably to a larger company attuned more to large yields than crop quality. The question isn’t whether we’ll have enough food in the future. Supply and demand will take care of that. It’s what kind of food will make the most financial sense to produce, and who will grow it.