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Farmers’ markets have spread across the country, and supermarkets and even chain restaurants are vying to lure customers with locally grown foods.
With that demand for fresh produce, there’s hardly been a better time to get into farming, it would seem. Right? Maybe not.
The latest agricultural census shows a steep drop in the number of beginning farmers, despite the Obama administration’s vigorous effort to recruit new farmers and promote small-scale agriculture.
The number of producers who have been the principal operators of their farms or ranches for less than five years fell by 23 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to preliminary data from the census that the Department of Agriculture conducts every five years.
The share of farms run by new producers has been in decline for decades. In 2012, 22 percent of principal operators had been farming for less than 10 years, down from 26 percent in 2007 and 38 percent in 1982.
Meanwhile, the latest survey shows that the average age of the nation’s farmers continues to rise, extending a decades-long trend. The average age reached 58.3 years in 2012, up 1.2 years from 2007.
USDA demographers attribute the drop most recently to the rising cost of farming and a devastating drought in 2012. “It costs a lot of money to start a farm today. The cost of everything has gone up on the farm, the equipment, the land is very expensive. Then in 2012 we had one of the worst droughts in recent memory and it affected much of the agricultural land in the U.S.,” said Linda J. Young, research and development division director for USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Land prices have soared since 2007, driven by skyrocketing prices for corn and other commodities. The average price of cropland in Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s home state of Iowa more than doubled from $3,908 an acre in 2007 to $8,716 last year, which simply puts farming out of reach for most young people.
“It’s very hard to go out and start by scratch. It’s impossible,” said Garrett Dwyer, a 27-year-old Nebraska rancher who raises cattle on his family’s 5,000-acre spread. The USDA will lend new farmers up to $300,000 to get started, but “that’s not even enough to buy a tractor” at today’s prices, much less land, Dwyer said.
Rising commodity prices have also have encouraged older farmers to stay in business and even expand. That “means that fewer people are going to retire, sell or transfer land while there is money to be made,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Nebraska was one of a few states that showed increases in the number of new farmers. Connecticut and Vermont were among others.