The farmers of our future
Farmers aren’t getting any younger. Will we be able to replace them?
Randall E. Pope
Demographic change may be the least-analyzed dynamic impacting the business of farming today, and such change could profoundly affect our industry in the relatively near future.
I have seen estimates that more than 35 percent of the people farming today are over 65, and in some areas, based on my unscientific observation, the proportion appears much higher. How much longer can these producers produce? Add to this aging population the reluctance of many of its offspring to take over the farm—and the enormous capital investment required to start a farming operation from scratch—and one can sense change in the wind.
What will those changes be? We’re not sure what the future holds, but if the past is any indication of the future, they will be significant to our industry. Just look at the history.
In 1800, the world population was just under a billion people. Of that billion, about 5.4 million or only about half of one percent lived in the fledgling United States. At that time, 4.3 million of those Americans—eight of every 10 people in this country—were involved in the production of the food and fiber that we needed as a nation to survive. That means only two of every 10 people could focus on economic activities other than feeding their families and neighbors.
Fast-forward 100 years. By 1900, the world had grown to 1.6 billion while the U.S. population had rocketed to 80 million, a full five percent of the world’s total population. Immigration was strong during the 1800s as our country began to industrialize. At this time, the number of Americans directly engaged in the production of food only grew to 28 million. During the 1800s, the proportion of the population involved in producing food and fiber fell to 35 percent of the U.S. population.
Now move forward to the year 2000. The world had ballooned to more than 6.1 billion inhabitants and the U.S. claimed 280 million people, still about five percent of the world’s total. The number of food producers? Down to 4 million, or about only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. And not only did those 4 million produce enough food and fiber for the needs of the other 276 million citizens, they exported 30 percent of almost everything they produced.
As we look at our industry today, we can congratulate ourselves for this legacy of improving efficiencies. However, we must also take a hard look at what effect demographic changes will have. A significant percentage of the 4 million food producers are nearing retirement. These are the individuals who have been the backbone of the industry and its improvement over the past half century. They’ve certainly had help from companies that improved genetics, equipment, fertilizers and chemical inputs, but they themselves have been responsible for many innovations.
And now, in too many instances, their children either don’t wish to or can’t afford to take over the farm. In today’s business and farm environment, that’s understandable. It’s not an easy business. It’s hard work.
Continued development in labor-saving technology may simply be changing farmers’ role in the food production process. Tomorrow’s farmers are likely to be considered “knowledge” rather than production workers as technology takes on more of the farm labor role.
Whatever we become as an industry, we must continue to create greater production efficiencies even in the face of these demographic changes. The United Nations estimates that in order to meet global demand by 2030, the world will need to produce 75 percent more food than it does now. And we must do this with a declining supply of farmers, farmland and water. What a challenge for our industry.
We’d better get to work, and we’d better figure out who’s going to be doing the producing.