The Coming Demographic Challenges in Agriculture

08 September 2016

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.

Background

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.

US Farmers by Age Group Demographics
 

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.

Corn Yield in Argentina, China, Tanzania, and the United States
Advances in mechanization and other farming improvements are still largely absent from sub-Saharan countries like Tanzania, keeping yields stagnant

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.

How severe is agriculture's demographic challenge?

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.

Agricultural Land Cultivated in Tanzania
Tanzania’s population growth has far outpaced growth in agricultural area, preventing young farmers from accessing land

Organizations driving change

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.

Conclusion

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.

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