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Aging farming population faces task of feeding the masses

August 12, 2013

You have heard the question: How are we going to feed 9 billion people?

That is the expected world population total by 2050.

Today, the Earth is home to a little more than 7 billion people, which by the way, we do not consistently feed.

Not because we do not produce enough food, but because of infrastructure issues and political corruption.

Actually, agriculture produces enough calories to feed 9 billion people.

However, as Michael Pollan reminds us, eating and food is more than simply consuming calories. Although this might be true in the industrialized world, in the developing world, consuming the necessary calories would suit them just fine.

However, this is not my topic today; my topic is who is going to produce the food in the future?

In the United States, less than 2 percent of the population is engaged in production agriculture and they are not spring chickens.

According to the U.S. census, the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57, and the fastest-growing age group is those older than 65.

Though many Americans are working well into the traditional retirement years, farmers seem to work longer than most. In the last agriculture census, 25 percent of all farm operators were older than 65, compared with 5 percent of the overall U.S. workforce.

Which means thousands of farms soon will be changing hands.

It is estimated that in the next 15 years, 70 percent of America’s farmland will change hands.

How that occurs could reshape the industry that drives much of the economy in rural America.

Washington County is fortunate that it has the second-youngest population of farmers in the state, averaging 52.2 years of age. Montgomery County, Md., boasts the eldest farmers, averaging 60 years of age.

Why do farmers keep farming into their golden years? There are many reasons; one is with mechanization, farming is less physical than when these folks started farming.

Another view is what is known as the “agrarian imperative,” the drive to keep farming, even when your body might be ready to quit.

Farmers would rather wear out instead of rust out. Additionally, recent university studies show more than half of aging farmers don’t have a will or an estate plan.

So why wouldn’t farmers have a secession plan? Like nonfarmers, many are not excited about facing their own mortality. For others, it is an economic reason — no retirement account. They have always looked at their land as their nest egg, which puts the next generation in a bind. The increased value of the land makes it hard to cash flow the business after purchase.

Some do not have any interested heirs to take over.

Yet others have heirs who have stayed and invested sweat equity into the operation while their siblings made their way in the outside world, and the parents do not know how to be fair when fair is not equal.

Kevin Spafford of Farm Journal’s Legacy Project recommends the family participate in succession planning and remember, the keys to success are:

  • Start with a family meeting.
  • Define common goals.
  • Overcome the obstacles that most families must face.
  • Utilize a defined planning process.
  • Commit to continuing the process — no matter how much you are required to adapt.

The future of the farm and your family relationships depend on your effort. These efforts are much more complicated than buying a life insurance policy and thousands of times more important. Clear communication is paramount.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.
 

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