Monday, June 24, 2019

How old should farmers be?

Feb 2011

Perhaps I’m just at a sensitive point in my life, but all the hysterics about the average farmer
age increasing is getting up my nose. To begin with, being 57 is not a national catastrophe.

The arithmetic is pretty straightforward. We'`re the age distribution completely even (the same number of farmers at every age), and positing a career that starts at 20 and ends at 70, the average would be 45 at minimum. But farmers are not employees hired for their skills from a pool of workers. They are small business owners. To see whether our average age is a concern, a better comparison might be with other small business owners.

Moreover, we are constrained by physical limits: the number of acres available, for one. Consequently, farming success or even entry depends on taking “market share” – not a trivial task.

Similar to stockbrokers handling investments for individuals, tenancy is a trust relationship, which is usually based on familiarity and personal ties, not class rank or GRE scores. Other than picking your parents well, there are few “fast-tracks” for farmers, unlike Boy Wonders on Wall Street. With the growing capital intensity of agriculture, we should no more expect 25 year-old producers running million-dollar operations that we would see bank presidents of the same age. At the same time the disappearance mid-sized farms eliminates rungs on the ladder for steady advancement. There are fewer 80-acre stepping-stones, and more 400-acre brawls.

The paucity of young farmers is a testament to how the requirements for this work have moved on from upper-body strength to business acumen. While there is a premium for the energy and ambition, it pales in importance to a proven track record and being able to relate to landowners.

Our inverted age distribution also is a reassuring indicator of how much safer and how much better our health care is compared to previous generations. Instead of widowed landladies, more cranky farmers are still in charge.  I’m not sure this is an improvement, but it does nudge the numbers higher.

Farming is a cumulative, “backloaded” career. Your career peak is almost always ahead. A farmer seldom has more power, influence or security than the day before he retires. Most of us wait decades for this status, and the complaints that it should be handed down simply for chronological symmetry are laughable.

And like other professions, many did not take command until another even more senior leader stepped down. If your father didn’t relinquish control until 75 and your career “started” at 50, why not reap the fruit of your patience? It is also little wonder that during good times especially, farmers stay in the saddle. Nothing will raise the average to 60 like $6 corn, I would predict.

Now throw in the fact careers are often starting later, in mid-thirties, for example. After college and other jobs, rookies may be the greater cause for the higher average.
Finally, the number grows due to consolidation and technology. Fewer farms mean fewer entrants. Greater productivity doesn’t bump out guys at the top as often as eliminate openings.  Farmers are older because they are fewer. Nor is this an American phenomenon. The average age in the UK is 64.  Maybe we’re too young.

We have aspiring farmers backed up waiting for a chance – not a recruiting problem. The average at least sends an approximate signal as to what to expect when. While it may seem unfair, it also is a testament to the sacrifice required of those who are farming now. Aspirants should ask for example, whether a 15-year career starting at 55 is worth it.

Worst of all, pointless whining about farmer age likely exacerbates retirement delays from sheer irritation, in my opinion. Every accusatory announcement simply tightens more gnarled fingers on the combine steering wheel.