We need more farmers. Otherwise we may not have enough food at any price. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that farmers have the highest median age among all occupations in the United States far exceeding the median age of the total employed, currently 42.2 years old.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture is now underway. But don’t hold your breath. The results won’t be out until February 2019. According to the last census back in 2012 the average age of a farmer in the United States was 58.2 years old. It’s been rising since 1982 when the average age was 50.5 years old at a rate of about 0.25 years per annum. If that trend were to continue we can predict the average age of a farmer in the United States will be 59.5 in 2017. And by 2050, when global population is expected to exceed 9 billion, the average age of a farmer could reach 68.
It’s not just the United States
Parts of world are experiencing the same phenomena. In 2013 the UK reported the median age of a farmer rose, albeit at a historically slower rate, to 59. The average of a farmer in Japan is an astonishing 67. Even in Africa, where according to the United Nations 60% of the population is under the age of 24, the average age of a farmer is 60. In China, the second largest economy in the world, the Nanjing Agriculture University conducted a study that showed over 58% of agriculture producers are likely to abandon farming in favor of better urban jobs.
We need to be more compassionate
In general, agriculture is hard work and a tough business encouraging nearly an entire generation to leave the farm for other careers. It’s a risky business to feed the planet. The industry is fraught with risks associated with high upfront capital costs, historically low and erratic commodity prices, and unpredictable weather. Farmers take loans to fund capital costs only later to find themselves in bankruptcy. Developments in climate change add another layer of uncertainty.
It should come as no surprise that suicide rates are the highest amongst farmers. According to the Center for Disease Control, persons working in the farming, fishing, and forestry group had the highest suicide rate overall at 84.5 per 100,000 persons. Male suicides are even higher at 90.5 per 100,000 persons. To put that into perspective, the next highest reported suicide rate is in the construction and extraction group at 53.5 per 100,000 persons, 37% lower. And it’s not just the United States. Countries in the European Union, for example France, report disproportionately high suicide rates among farmers when compared to other occupations. Similar trends are reported in Australia and India.
It’s starting to gain our government’s attention, but not enough is being done. Five states have rural mental health hotlines: Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The state of Colorado is currently seeking to re-establish their hotline.
History tends to repeat itself
Agriculture commodity prices are at historical lows after adjusting for inflation. If history is any guide it will take much higher agriculture prices to encourage more people to enter farming. In fact in the United States the average age of a farmer has been rising since the 1940s. The only marked decline in the average age was during the late 1970’s, a period when agriculture prices soared during the commodities bull market cycle which lasted from about 1968 to 1981. Back then the United States was the largest consumer of agriculture resources. But this time may be different. Increases in global demand for agriculture are likely to be much higher with a rapidly growing economy and middle class in Asia.
For further reading:
Clayton, C. (2017). "Farm Business Stress: Organizations and Some States Offer Counseling Hot Lines." AgFax.
Crown (2014). "Agriculture in the United Kingdom."
FAO (2014). "Contribution to the 2014 United Nations ECOSOC Integration Segment."
Guancheng Gui, Wen, and Zhu (2015). "The Impact of Aging Agriculture Labor Population on Farmland Output: From the Perspective of Farmer Preferences." Mathematical Problems in Engineering 2015.
Mcintosh, W. L. (2016). "Suicide Rates by Occupational Group - 17 States, 2012." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR: Morbidity and Mortaility Weekly Report 65(25).
USDA (2014). "Farm Demographics: U.S. Farmers by Gender, Age, Race, Ethnicity, and More." ACH12-3.