Herald-Whig View

Statistics point to troubled future for farming

Posted: Dec. 31, 2018 9:10 am

WHERE will the United States come up with new farmers?

Asked in a slightly different way -- is this nation on the verge of losing a generation of farmers and ranchers?

These are not just questions for farm country. America needs agricultural producers, livestock managers, growers and harvesters. Without them the inexpensive, safe and secure food system Americans have come to expect will be no more.

Unfortunately, the front-end costs of preparing the next generation of farmers is so high, and the payback takes so long, that few people are stepping forward to fill the shoes of farmers who are leaving.

In early 2017, the National Young Farmers Coalition started a drive to get farmers added to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The group made a compelling case that future farmers provide a public service similar to the work done by doctors, nurses, attorneys, teachers and others who earn loan forgiveness after working a certain number of years in those careers or in certain locations.

A survey found the average NYFC member was amassing $35,000 in student debt. As a consequence, most of those graduating from college had to take off-farm jobs to cover student-loan payments. Nearly 30 percent chose not to pursue farming because of student debt. These students and graduates were overwhelmingly from farm backgrounds, learning skills they would need on the farm, and three out of 10 found they could not afford to stay in agriculture.

The educational loan forgiveness idea was rejected, but student debt is not the only barrier.

The national average price of farmland in 2018 is $3,140 per acre. In Iowa, the average price is $8,080. New Jersey has the nation's highest farmland prices with an average of $12,700.

In addition to the price of land, equipment costs are high. Seed, fertilizer and chemical costs are high hurdles for grain producers. The price of livestock, feed, veterinary services and other input costs are substantial.

There also are some rolling deadlines for handing off the farmland and the work to a new generation.

The USDA's 2012 Agricultural Resource Management Survey indicated the average principal farm operator was 58 years old in 2012. The survey also indicated that only 4 percent of America's family farms had principal operators younger than 35, while nearly a third were 65 or older and 12 percent were 75 or older.

The Census of Agriculture reported a few years ago that one-tenth of the nation's farmland would change hands between 2015 and 2019. Part of those 91.5 million acres will be inherited by the owners' families. But much of that land will be sold to investors and speculators who may live across the nation, or across the globe. Numbers point toward fewer farmers and larger acreages held by a mix of local and distant landowners.

In rural communities, populations will decline. Schools will have fewer students. Local businesses will have fewer customers. The ripple effect will hit people who never lived or worked on a farm.

There are some federal outreach and technical assistance programs for beginning farmers and eligible landowners. Some states also offer financing programs. This year, Minnesota began offering tax credits to landowners when they rent or sell farmland to beginning farmers. Nebraska and Iowa provide tax credits to landowners who rent agricultural equipment or assets to new farmers.

These efforts represent a start.

America needs its farmers. Losing them must not be an option.