An Urban's Rural View

Beginning an Inquiry Into Beginning Farmers

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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People are often shocked to hear that the average American farmer is 58 years old. That's nothing. The average Japanese farmer is 66. During my recent trip to Japan I more than once heard people joke that the Japanese government doesn't have to protect farmers from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which lowers Japan's ag-trade barriers. All it has to do is outwait them.

The assumption hiding in this quip -- that no one in Japan wants to inherit farms or start new ones -- is an exaggeration, of course. In the U.S. it would be an outright lie. For many if not most large American farms, sons or daughters are eager to take over when mom and dad step aside. Young Americans who aren't inheriting but want to farm abound, as do "beginning farmer" programs aimed at helping these hopefuls overcome their lack of land, capital and training.

Within USDA, according to the department's Inspector General, six agencies spend $2 billion a year or more on programs that benefit beginning farmers. (…). State ag departments and land-grant universities and nongovernment organizations have programs, too (…).

Yet for all this interest and effort, USDA's 2012 ag census showed a 19.6% decline from 2007 in the number of farmers operating for 10 years or less and a 23.3% drop in the five-years-or-less category (…). Yes, the number of long-established farms has also been declining, but not as fast as the newer ones. In 2012 only 17.2% of the nation's farmers had been operating 10 years or less, down from 26% in 2007 and 38% in 1982.

These statistics are not encouraging. Are we really doing that much better than Japan in making the transition to the next generation of farmers? Are the beginning-farmer programs working? Are they injecting agriculture with fresh blood?

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The average age of the beginning farmers in the 2012 census was 49 (…). This suggests that many of the new farmers are simply sons or daughters who are inheriting the role of principal operator later in life because mom and dad are hanging on longer. If that's true, how many young wannabes are actually getting into the game? Have the barriers to entry gotten so high that agriculture, like monarchy, is basically a family affair -- either you're born into it or you're not?

It's theoretically possible, of course, that the beginning-farmer programs, or at least some of them, are in some sense "working" -- that without them the decline would have been much steeper. Possible, but unclear. I have spent some time lately researching these questions. Maybe I'm just a terrible researcher, but I have not found answers.

In my defense, there's reason to think that I'm not the only one in the dark. Last year USDA's Inspector General examined the department's beginning-farmer efforts for fiscal years 2012 and 2013. The IG's report concluded USDA "lacked sufficient performance goals, direction, coordination, and monitoring to ensure success" (…) and thus "cannot ensure that the $3.9 billion of beginning farmers' assistance in FYs 2012 and 2013 has achieved effective and measurable outcomes."

Another report -- by the Land Stewardship Project and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (…) -- made a deep dive into one relatively small but potentially critical USDA program. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program gives grants -- authorized at $20 million a year from 2014 through 2018 -- to institutions developing beginning-farmer training resources. The two groups' June 2015 assessment of BFRDP concluded that universities received a greater proportion of the grants in fiscal year 2014 than community based organizations and nongovernment organizations, contrary to Congressional intent to favor CBOs and NGOs.

Whatever the merits of this assessment, it has limited value in determining whether the program is doing beginning farmers any good. In the taxonomy of the late political scientist James Q. Wilson, it's an example of focusing on a program's "output" rather than its "outcomes." It's obsessed with process, oblivious to results.

Of course, outputs are typically easier to measure than outcomes. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Which if any of these programs do the best job of putting new farmers in business and keeping them in business? What works? What can be improved?

Readers, I'm interested in your thoughts. Can you point me to any programs you think are making a difference? Are you aware of any research analyzing the questions I'm raising? Do you know new farmers who've benefited from these programs? This isn't the last post you'll see from me on beginning farmers. I'm eager to get my hands dirty digging into this important issue.

Urban Lehner


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