Farmers are aging, but newcomers continue to enter the field


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The average Virginia farmer is 58.5 years old, compared to 57.2 years in 2012, according to recently released findings of the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

That’s slightly younger than the national average age of a farmer, which is 59.4 years. And it continues the trend of the average age of farmers increasing over the past two decades.

A number of factors contribute to that trend, noted Tony Banks, a Virginia Farm Bureau Federationcommodity marketing specialist.

“The census asks who is the main farm owner. And often that’s the oldest member of the family,” Banks said. “So it may not capture a 40- or 30-year-old son or daughter who’s also helping run the farm. Often the parents are legally the farm owners, but the children call just as many shots as them.

“Plus, many family farms are also corporations, and so children who are in line to inherit are not captured by the census,” Banks explained. “And don’t forget that rural populations have skewed older than the average statewide population in Virginia and the U.S. for many years.”

While the age of farmers is increasing, the numbers of producers younger than 35 and those who have been farming less than 10 years are consistent with the 2012 census findings.

The number of young producers in 2017 was 5,996, which represents 8.5 percent of all farmers. That percentage didn’t change from 2012.

The number of new and beginning farmers was 18,957, or 27 percent of all Virginia farmers—about the same as five years ago.

That number may increase in the next census, because new farmers have help. The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized financial support to a national network of Beginning Farmer and Rancher education programs.

In Virginia, that program is housed at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, with several public and private partners like Farm Bureau. The curriculum offers advice, seminars and networking opportunities for those interested in an agriculture career.

“I think that has provided a way to educate more beginning farmers and address some of the issues they struggle with,” remarked Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, Virginia commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.

“Issues like ‘How am I going to get credit? How am I going to get some experience? How am I going to get access to land?’” she explained. “These programs connect would-be farmers with resources like the Farm Service Agency in terms of getting a farm loan, or commercial lenders. And they give them experience on how to actually farm if they don’t have that. So that makes it easier to venture into farming if you’ve not done that before.”

To learn more about the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition,

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