The world’s farmers are getting older, with their average age reaching record highs around the world. In the United States, the average farmer is 58.3 years old; in Japan that figure is 67; it’s 60 or even higher in Africa, which is all the more striking because the region’s demographics skew toward the young.
As farmer age demographics push higher and higher, agricultural stakeholders have begun to worry that there won’t be enough people working in the farm sector in the near future, that the current generation of farmers will retire, and not enough young people will step in to take their place. The most dire predictions state that there won’t be enough farmers to feed the world by a single generation. More moderate predictions expect that the farm sector will merely fall short of its economic potential.
In recognition of the demographic problem, governments, businesses, and NGOs have made a wide effort in the past decade to encourage young people to take up farming. Organizations have cropped up across different countries, in both the developed and the developing worlds, that help steer young people into careers in agriculture. These movements have generated enthusiasm, but it’s unclear whether they’ll do enough to reverse the prevailing trend.
Why has the average age of farmers steadily increased? The answer is multifaceted and varies depending on the country, but we can identify a few overarching themes.
In the past half century or more, the farm sector and its relationship to the rest of the economy has changed. In particular, the mechanization of agriculture in the early and mid-20th century meant that far fewer people were required to do the same amount of work on a farm. Before World War II in the United States, 40 million people lived on farms, and 1.2 million tractors were in use. By 1950, only 23 million people lived on farms, and 4 million tractors were in use.
With increased mechanical aid from tractors, mechanical harvesters, and other agricultural equipment, the labor force required for the farm sector dropped rapidly. Workers that in previous generations would have taken on farm work began to find work in other parts of the economy. Meanwhile, farm productivity dramatically increased. Instead of labor, the dominant factors of production have become capital and land. Additional improvements in techniques and inputs led yields to improve as well, increasing the amount that could be earned from a single acre. This trend has pushed the value of farmland up. In 1900, the average value of an acre of farmland in the United States was $577, adjusted for inflation. By 1950, that figure had climbed to $657, then to $1,620 in 1974 and $2,560 in 2012.
As land and equipment prices keep increasing, new entrants have a hard time paying up the initial startup costs. The barriers to entry are too high for young, less well-capitalized farmers. As life expectancy climbs and mechanization reduces the amount of physical labor required, farmers are able to work longer without retiring. Consequently, the age distribution of farmers has also become highly skewed toward the older end of the spectrum.
While increased capital investments have been a main driver for aging farmers in the United States and other advanced economies, less-developed countries are facing the same demographic challenge, though due to a slightly different group of causes. In sub-Saharan Africa, much of the farming sector is still not mechanized, and therefore just as labor-intensive as it has been for decades or more. Demographic surveys are not as comprehensive or as reliable in sub-Saharan Africa as they are in the United States, yet most evidence suggests the average farmer age in the region is about 60, in line with figures from the US and Europe. That’s in spite of that fact that the majority of the population is very young, with about 60 percent of the population under 24 years old.
One factor that is different in sub-Saharan Africa is the rapid rate of urbanization. From 1961 to 2015, the percentage of people living in urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled, from 14.6 percent to 37.7 percent. In comparison, the United States was already largely urban, with 70 percent of the population living in urban areas in 1960, which grew to 81.6 percent in 2015.
Like their Western counterparts, young people in sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing higher barriers to entry into farming than they were a generation ago. But rather than access to capital equipment, the largest barrier is access to land. Populations have grown rapidly, yet land available for agriculture has not kept up. From 1960 to 2015, the population of sub-Saharan Africa has more than quadrupled, growing from 228 million to over 1 billion.
In Tanzania, for example, where the amount of cultivated land has grown faster than in most African countries, agricultural area has increased 43.5 percent from 1961 to 2011. Over the same time period, the country’s population grew 354 percent from 10 million to 47 million. In a country where most farmland is already occupied, young people are entering the workforce more quickly than farmers are retiring. African urbanization is therefore driven both by attractive opportunities in burgeoning cities as well as a dearth of opportunities for young people in rural areas.
One alarmist reaction to the prospect of an aging farmer population coupled with a young and growing global population are fears that there won’t be enough farmers to feed the world’s population in a single generation. But there is little evidence to support this claim.
A more likely scenario is that economies that fail to attract young people to the farm sector will experience diminished productivity in their agricultural sectors. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 89 percent of rural youth work in agriculture, a sector which contributes one-third to one half of most countries’ GDP in the region; consequently, the young, rural workforce contributes about one-quarter to one-third of the continent’s GDP though its work in agriculture. If young people, faced with a lack of education and work opportunities in rural areas, move to cities, African economies could suffer. A researcher from Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD) has estimated that just a 10 percent drop in African youth’s involvement in agriculture could lead to up to a 5 percent drop in the continent’s GDP as agricultural production drops and countries are forced to rely more on food imports.
A June 2016 report published by Michigan State University examined youth employment opportunities on- and off-farm in Nigeria, Tanzania and Rwanda, concluding that the farm sector remains the most powerful area for job creation in these countries. In Tanzania, economic growth in recent years has been concentrated in urban sectors, including mining, construction, telecommunications and banking; with the exception of construction, this growth has created few new jobs directly. The result has been slower poverty reduction in rural areas, more rapid rural-to-urban migration, and increasing wealth inequality between rural and urban areas. Nevertheless, research maintains that in sub-Saharan Africa, growth in agriculture is 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in any other sector. The study also found that across all three countries, individuals aged 25-34 are much less likely to be engaged in farming than those aged 15-24, suggesting that they begin in farming and transfer to other forms of employment when they are able. Overall, the labor force in these countries is moving rapidly out of farming, yet farming remains enormously important both in terms of employment and economic contribution.
The developed world isn’t immune to those consequences. According to a 2015 report by the USDA and Purdue University, from 2015 to 2020 there will be on average 57,900 annual job openings in food, agriculture and renewable resources in the US, yet only 35,400 annual graduates in relevant fields. (Note that this is not the farm sector itself, but adjacent agri-food industries.) The lack of available expertise in these fields will likely prevent the broader agriculture and food sector from producing at its full potential.
Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economist from Ohio State University, raised a different demographic angle to Gro Intelligence. Farmers often retire later than workers in other parts of the labor force, and technological tools, such as GPS harvesting, are reducing their workload, allowing them to work longer and retire later. In this light, the rising age of US farmers may not be so troubling. Furthermore, as the baby boomer generation retires across all sectors, the average age of the workforce is expected to fall. Zulauf said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the same trend to occur naturally in the farm sector, although it may be delayed if boomer farmers retire later than boomers in other sectors. On the concern that barriers to entry are too high for new farmers, Zulauf said that, anecdotally, he has seen no strong evidence that this is true. When assessing how many new farmers the US actually needs, Zulauf mentions that it will come down to a simple equation: if demand for farm products increases faster than yields or vice versa.
It’s difficult to say if or when exactly the trend of aging farmers will reverse to bring a greater volume of young people into the agricultural sector. As the demographic shift has become more pronounced in recent years, various organizations have cropped up to address the problem. YPARD, mentioned above, got its start in 2005 after a group of young scientists from several European agricultural research organizations realized that the young community of scientists was underrepresented in decision-making. The main advocacy body in the United States, the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, was founded in 2009 after several young farmers in upstate New York were looking for a community to offer solutions to the struggles they faced as industry entrants.
In developing countries, the aid sector dominates the scene. Farm Africa, a UK-based NGO, launched its Youth Empowerment in Sustainable Agriculture (YESA) program in 2011 in Kenya and has since trained over 2,300 young farmers. In Western and Central Africa, a web TV program launched in 2016 called Agribusiness TV, with support from a handful of international aid organizations, brings agribusiness success stories to youth to encourage them to pursue careers in agriculture.
Gro Intelligence spoke with Daniel Oulaï, cofounder of Ayihalo, a small NGO that provides agricultural training for young people in rural areas of Côte d’Ivoire. He stressed it’s very difficult for rural youth in Côte d’Ivoire to access any training or financial resources, to say nothing of land. Once young people develop information networks and coworking spaces to share best practices and exchange information, according to Oulaï there will be an organic flow of younger entrepreneurs into the agricultural sector. Organizations like Ayihalo are working to bring African farming into the information age.
Much the conversation surrounding engaging youth in agriculture involves the idea that agriculture needs to become “cool” to attract young people. That’s likely part of the answer, but probably a stronger argument is that agriculture needs to be lucrative to young people. Start-up costs are insurmountable for many beginning farmers, and young people that might consider careers in farming often lack education or experience. To top it off, farming is still often a very risky enterprise—vulnerable to poor weather, pests, and unpredictable price fluctuations from downstream markets. In this environment, it’s hardly surprising that young people entering the workforce have opted for the city, and the careers that come with it, over the farm.
If skewed farm age demographics are to change, young people will need stronger incentives to choose a career in agriculture. Beginning farmers need considerable support when seeking financing, insurance, and other services. Before even embarking on a business endeavor, they’ll need education and training. As agriculture becomes more globally competitive as well as more technical and sophisticated, novice farmers will need to be able to hit the ground running. Currently, this kind of support is provided largely from organizations like those mentioned above, while minimal support is provided by governments. With the proper guidance and support mechanisms to get youth into farming, the sector could become a major opportunity for a higher-earning career. Then, maybe, agriculture will become cool.
Receive our research in your inbox
Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter!
What Information Do We Collect?
The information we gather enables us to personalize, improve and continue to operate the Services. We collect the following types of information from our users.
IP Address Information and Other Information Collected Automatically:
· We automatically receive and record information from your web browser when you interact with the Services, including your IP address and cookie information. This information is used for fighting spam/malware and also to facilitate collection of data concerning your interaction with the Services (e.g., what links you have clicked on).
· Generally, the Services automatically collect usage information, such as the number and frequency of visitors to the Site. We may use this data in aggregate form, that is, as a statistical measure, but not in a manner that would identify you personally. This type of aggregate data enables us and third parties authorized by us to figure out how often individuals use parts of the Services so that we can analyze and improve them.
Information Collected Using Cookies:
· Most browsers have an option for turning off the cookie feature, which will prevent your browser from accepting new cookies, as well as (depending on the sophistication of your browser software) allowing you to decide on acceptance of each new cookie in a variety of ways.
We collect statistical information about how users collectively use the Services (“Aggregate Information”). Some of this information may be derived from Personal Information. This statistical information is not Personal Information and cannot be tied back to you or your web browser.
How, and With Whom, Is My Information Shared?
IP Address Information:
Information You Elect to Share:
We share Aggregate Information with our partners, service providers and other persons with whom we conduct business. We share this type of statistical data so that our partners can understand how and how often people use our Services and their services or websites, which facilitates improving both their services and how our Services interface with them. In addition, these third parties may share with us non-private, aggregated or otherwise non Personal Information about you that they have independently developed or acquired.
Information Shared with Our Agents:
We employ and contract with people and other entities that perform certain tasks on our behalf and who are under our control (our “Agents”). We may need to share Personal Information with our Agents in order to provide products or services to you. Unless we tell you differently, our Agents do not have any right to use Personal Information or other information we share with them beyond what is necessary to assist us. You hereby consent to our sharing of Personal Information with our Agents.
Information Disclosed Pursuant to Business Transfers:
In some cases, we may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, user information is typically one of the transferred business assets. Moreover, if we, or substantially all of our assets, were acquired, or if we go out of business or enter bankruptcy, user information would be one of the assets that is transferred or acquired by a third party. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that any acquirer of us or our assets may continue to use your Personal Information as set forth in this policy.
Information Disclosed for Our Protection and the Protection of Others:
Information We Share With Your Consent:
Except as set forth above, you will be notified when your Personal Information may be shared with third parties, and will be able to prevent the sharing of this information.
Is Information About Me Secure?
We store all of our information, including your IP address information, using industry-standard techniques. We do not guarantee or warrant that such techniques will prevent unauthorized access to information about you that we store, Personal Information or otherwise.
What Information of Mine Can I Access?
You can access and delete cookies through your web browser settings.
California Privacy Rights: Under California Civil Code sections 1798.83-1798.84, California residents are entitled to ask us for a notice identifying the categories of personal customer information which we share with our affiliates and/or third parties for marketing purposes, and providing contact information for such affiliates and/or third parties. If you are a California resident and would like a copy of this notice, please submit a written request to the following address: 12 E 49th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10017
What If I Have Questions or Concerns?
If you have any questions or concerns regarding privacy using the Services, please send us a detailed message to email@example.com. We will make every effort to resolve your concerns.
Effective Date: March 11, 2014
b. You shall not (directly or indirectly):i. take any action that imposes or may impose (as determined by us in our sole discretion) an unreasonable or disproportionately large load on our (or our third party providers’) infrastructure;ii. interfere or attempt to interfere with the proper working of the Services or any activities conducted on the Services;iii. bypass, circumvent or attempt to bypass or circumvent any measures we may use to prevent or restrict access to the Services (or other accounts, computer systems or networks connected to the Services);iv. use manual or automated software, devices, or other processes to “crawl” or “spider” any page of the Site;
v. harvest or scrape any Content from the Services;
vi. otherwise take any action in violation of our guidelines and policies;vii. decipher, decompile, disassemble, reverse engineer or otherwise attempt to derive any source code or underlying ideas or algorithms of any part of the Services (including without limitation any application), except to the limited extent applicable laws specifically prohibit such restriction;viii. modify, translate, or otherwise create derivative works of any part of the Services; orix. copy, rent, lease, distribute, or otherwise transfer any of the rights that you receive hereunder.c. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to:i. satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request;ii. enforce these Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations hereof;
iii. detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues;
iv. respond to user support requests; or
v. protect the rights, property or safety of us, our users and the public.4. Third Party Services. The Services may permit you to link to other websites, services or resources on the Internet, and other websites, services or resources may contain links to the Services. When you access third party resources on the Internet, you do so at your own risk. These other resources are not under our control, and you acknowledge that we are not responsible or liable for the content, functions, accuracy, legality, appropriateness or any other aspect of such websites or resources. The inclusion of any such link does not imply our endorsement or any association between us and their operators. You further acknowledge and agree that we shall not be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods or services available on or through any such website or resource.5. Termination. We may terminate your access to all or any part of the Services at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, effective immediately. All provisions of these Terms of Service which by their nature should survive termination shall survive termination, including, without limitation, ownership provisions, warranty disclaimers, indemnity and limitations of liability.6. Warranty Disclaimer.a. You release us from all liability for you having acquired or not acquired Content through the Services. We make no representations concerning any Content contained in or accessed through the Services, and we will not be responsible or liable for the accuracy, copyright compliance, or legality of material or Content contained in or accessed through the Services.b. THE SERVICES AND CONTENT ARE PROVIDED “AS IS”, “AS AVAILABLE” AND WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF TITLE, NON-INFRINGEMENT, MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND ANY WARRANTIES IMPLIED BY ANY COURSE OF PERFORMANCE OR USAGE OF TRADE, ALL OF WHICH ARE EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMED. WE, AND OUR DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AGENTS, SUPPLIERS, PARTNERS AND CONTENT PROVIDERS DO NOT WARRANT THAT: (I) THE SERVICES WILL BE SECURE OR AVAILABLE AT ANY PARTICULAR TIME OR LOCATION; (II) ANY DEFECTS OR ERRORS WILL BE CORRECTED; (III) ANY CONTENT AVAILABLE AT OR THROUGH THE SERVICES IS FREE OF VIRUSES OR OTHER HARMFUL COMPONENTS; OR (IV) THE RESULTS OF USING THE SERVICES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS.7. Limitation of Liability. IN NO EVENT SHALL WE, NOR OUR DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AGENTS, PARTNERS, SUPPLIERS OR CONTENT PROVIDERS, BE LIABLE UNDER CONTRACT, TORT, STRICT LIABILITY, NEGLIGENCE OR ANY OTHER LEGAL OR EQUITABLE THEORY WITH RESPECT TO THE SERVICES FOR ANY (I) LOST PROFITS, DATA LOSS, COST OF PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES, OR SPECIAL, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE, COMPENSATORY OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER, SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES (HOWEVER ARISING), (II) BUGS, VIRUSES, TROJAN HORSES, OR THE LIKE (REGARDLESS OF THE SOURCE OF ORIGINATION), OR (III) DIRECT DAMAGES IN EXCESS OF $50.00.8. Governing Law and Jurisdiction. These Terms of Service shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of New York, including its conflicts of law rules, and the United States of America. You agree that any dispute arising from or relating to the subject matter of these Terms of Service shall be governed by the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the state and Federal courts of New York County, New York.9. Miscellaneous.a. Modification. We reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to modify or replace any of these Terms of Service, or change, suspend, or discontinue the Services at any time. Your continued use of the Services following notification of any changes to these Terms of Service constitutes acceptance of those changes.b. Entire Agreement and Severability. These Terms of Service are the entire agreement between you and us with respect to the Services, including use of the Site, and supersede all prior or contemporaneous communications and proposals (whether oral, written or electronic) between you and us with respect to the Services. If any provision of these Terms of Service is found to be unenforceable or invalid, that provision will be limited or eliminated to the minimum extent necessary so that these Terms of Service will otherwise remain in full force and effect and enforceable. The failure of either party to exercise in any respect any right provided for herein shall not be deemed a waiver of any further rights hereunderc. Force Majeure. We shall not be liable for any failure to perform our obligations hereunder where such failure results from any cause beyond our reasonable control, including, without limitation, mechanical, electronic or communications failure or degradation.d. Assignment. These Terms of Service are personal to you, and are not assignable, transferable or sublicensable by you except with our prior written consent. We may assign, transfer or delegate any of our rights and obligations hereunder without consent.e. Agency. No agency, partnership, joint venture, or employment relationship is created as a result of these Terms of Service and neither party has any authority of any kind to bind the other in any respect.f. Notices. Unless otherwise specified in these Term of Service, all notices under these Terms of Service will be in writing and will be deemed to have been duly given when received, if personally delivered or sent by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested; when receipt is electronically confirmed, if transmitted by facsimile or e-mail; or the day after it is sent, if sent for next day delivery by recognized overnight delivery service. Electronic notices should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. No Waiver. Our failure to enforce any part of these Terms of Service shall not constitute a waiver of our right to later enforce that or any other part of these Terms of Service. Waiver of compliance in any particular instance does not mean that we will waive compliance in the future. In order for any waiver of compliance with these Terms of Service to be binding, we must provide you with written notice of such waiver through one of our authorized representatives.h. Headings. The section and paragraph headings in these Terms of Service are for convenience only and shall not affect their interpretation.Contact. You may contact us at the following address: 12 E 49th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10017.