Farmers and ranchers in the United States are aging, and many worry the country may face a shortage of new farmers and ranchers to fill the gap when today’s producers retire. Young people starting new commercial farm operations often cannot afford the high cost of land. New farmers also often lack the experience, access to capital, and social connections that are important to success. In addition, complicated estate taxes are barriers to new entrants. Meanwhile, large commercial farms (which produce 85 percent of U.S. food) have become complex, multigenerational family businesses with significant land and machinery assets. The complexity poses significant legal, capital, and management barriers that make passing these farms along to a new generation difficult.
Equally important in attracting young people into farming are quality-of-life issues. Such factors as ample social opportunities, good schools, shopping, health insurance, and quality infrastructure in the community can be as important as the expected returns from the farm business. Communities with diversified economies, strong institutions, and diverse amenities are more attractive than communities that do not have the qualities and opportunities required for a good quality of life.
In recent years, new state and federal programs to promote entry into the sector have included targeted loans for beginning farmers, help with legal and financial complexities in transferring ownership, training programs to help young people without farm backgrounds learn the basics, and efforts to support unrelated farm managers and farm workers become producers. Determining the effectiveness of these efforts is imperative.
Communities are critical to farming success. Deeper understanding is needed of the links between rural community well-being and the strength of the agricultural sector, and its attraction for younger farmers. Growing consolidation of farm production on fewer and larger operations has meant gains in efficiency, but it has also raised concern about the erosion of traditional connections between family farming, thriving rural communities, and landscape and natural amenities. On the other hand, growing interest in local, regional, and organic food has spurred growth in small farms in many areas. Comprehensive reform of U.S. food and agricultural policy must include investments in communities that support farmers and ranchers as well as effective programs to attract young people into the occupation.