Just ask any 18 to 22-year-old about their career plans and only a tiny percentage of them will say: “I’d like to get into farming.”
The fact is, America’s farmers are rapidly aging. Today, the average farmer is 58 years old, and the supply of younger people willing to step into the job of growing food is showing no signs of trending upward.
Farming is a vital occupation fundamental to society, yet has small appeal among millennials. The thought of getting into a tractor to plant wheat or corn, or running a dairy operation just doesn’t seem as exciting as a career in high-tech, banking, law, entertainment or medicine.
This has industry watchers worried. Who will grow America’s food for the next generation? If it’s not today’s young people – then it’s nobody. Furthermore, the USDA estimates that 500,000 farmers will opt for early retirement in the next 20 years.
A rural lifestyle, working with animals, long days and the high-stress of financial uncertainty persistently associated with farming is not exactly what young people are looking for when they graduate from high school and select a college major.
Most new farmers tend to be the children of current farmers. But even in this case, the trends are against a robust farm labor force. That’s because farm families –like those in most demographic groups – are having fewer children. In the 1950s it was common for farm families to sport five to 10 children, whereas today the average farm couple has just two children.
As if often the case, at least one of those two children, and sometimes both, opt out of the farming lifestyle of their parents.
Some of the problem will be alleviated by the increasing mechanization of farming — and yes – the ever-advancing usage of robots across many industries in America, including agriculture.
Another possible source of replacement farmers: Immigrants. Indeed, the dire need for more hands on the farm may produce widespread changes in attitudes toward immigrants, always a flash-point subject in the American political arena.
In the final analysis, however, growing food is always going to require human hands willing to get dirty working in the soil, and take on the risks of one our most historically financially-fickle industries.