A Bright Future for Agriculture

The 2012 Census of Agriculture’s preliminary report provides a glimpse of farm data from across the country, and it holds some promising signs.  Our home state of Nebraska is illustrative. The numbers show what could be happening countrywide with the right policies and programs in place.

Nebraska has more than 2,000 additional farms now than in 2007. And we weren't the only state to gain. Other states gaining operations include Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming, South Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Florida.

In Nebraska, nearly 1,000 more farmers claim farming as their primary occupation. For “years on present farm,” Nebraska grew in every category, from 2 years or less to 10 years or more. Especially importantly, farmer numbers grew in lower age brackets. The under 25 years category grew by 18%; those aged 25 to 34 grew by 13% (up nationally as well), and farmers aged 35 to 44 grew by 10%.

Only one group showed a decline: those aged 45 to 54 years. The number of farmers in this group shrunk by nearly 7% – losing roughly 700 farms completely. Over 500 of these farmers graduated into an older age bracket. National data in this age group declined as well.

I throw caution to the wind on this decline. It’s essential to reverse this loss. These middle-career farmers have kids in our rural schools and, hopefully, are building the equity and assets to help start their next generation in farming. They are absolutely critical to our future. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recognized the challenge too. He wrote, "We must do more to protect the middle — farms and ranches that are middle-sized and mid-income — and ensure that they can access resources and protections to help them thrive."

The average age of Nebraska’s farmers is getting younger! We moved from an average age of 55.9 to 55.7. That slight decrease is nearly 3 years lower than the national average, which moved in the opposite direction – from an age of 57.1 to 58.3. Nebraska grew in small acreage categories, while losing some farms on the other end. Farms sized from 1-9 acres and from 10-49 acres totaled 2,700.

Small scale farming is where Nebraska’s new farms are being generated. It is a good correlation to where most beginners are finding opportunity – small scale, and often direct market style farms growing high-value crops and livestock.

Young and beginning farmers are unlocking the potential that exists in rural Nebraska and rural America. We say, farm on!