Agriculture faces a heart transplant

If government and private estimates are accurate, hundreds of millions of American farm acres will have new owners in the next 15 years.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s survey takers and record keepers predict that 100 million acres of today’s farmland will be sold by its current owners by 2023.

The American Farmland Trust (AFT), a non-partisan farmland conservation group based in Washington, D.C., pegs the turnover rate even higher. It estimates 371 million acres of the nation’s farm and ranchland will change hands in the next 15 years. That’s four out of every 10 acres in private ownership today, claims AFT.

One key reason is the average age of today’s farmers; we — my generation, the baby boomers — are getting old. Demographers say today’s youngest boomer is 55; its oldest, well into their 70s. While the average age of all U.S. farmers, 57.5, falls on the younger end of that scale, it is accelerating by more than a year every five years, according to the 2017 ag census.

As such, it won’t be long before most boomers will be a fading echo in America and American agriculture. Don’t worry; we will be a loud echo. According to U.S. census data, nearly 10,000 boomers, including many farmers, some journalists, and, uh huh, column readers, now reach age 65 every day.

Equally noteworthy is the average age of today’s “beginning farmer,” a group the 2017 ag census defines as ranchers and farmers with less than 10 years of farming experience. It is a not-so-short-in-the-tooth 46.3 years.

That’s probably why USDA classifies them as “beginning farmers” and not “young farmers.”

Even more striking is state level data. According to a 2018 Iowa State University study on Iowa farmland ownership and tenure, 60 percent of that state’s farmland is owned by people 65 or older and 35 percent is owned by people 75 or older.

Other farmland ownership numbers from the Iowa State study are just as eye opening. For example, 13 percent of Iowa’s farmland is owned by women over 80 years old; over half of Iowa’s farmland is owned by people who don’t farm; 30 percent is owned by either corporations or trusts; and 29 percent “is primarily owned for family or sentimental reasons.”

These numbers are indicative of almost all ag-centred states. We boomers revere farmland whether we farmed it or inherited it, and we tend to hold onto it despite recent low returns because that’s what our families have always done.

For many of our children, however, those soft-hearted family reasons don’t hold up to hard-nosed business analysis. Indeed, their lack of affection, interest or knowledge of either farming or farmland provides most of the reasoning behind the coming turnover as we boomers, literally and figuratively, retire.

The coming flush of land sales, however, doesn’t mean land prices will cheapen dramatically or that today’s young farmers can expect to buy land more easily in the coming years.

New, innovative ideas, however, are percolating to bridge the gap. Several were recently shown in Red Wing, Minnesota, at the Upper Midwest Farmland Summit.

The convention’s goal was to “help farmers successfully transition their farms both within and outside the family, and to assist beginning farmers to attain affordable land access….”

Organizers hoped to bring together farmers, attorneys, finance experts, conservationists, and ag marketing professionals to “address these issues and discuss innovative strategies and solutions.”

For aging boomers, though, it’s an almost bulls-eye shot at immortality, a way to transplant our love for the land and of farming into the hearts and minds of a new, caring generation for decades to come.

Alan Guebert is an agricultural commentator from Illinois.

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