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Oregon agriculture is getting grayer

ODA Director Coba concerned that Oregon farmers & ranchers are getting older

Oregon agriculture is getting older. The average age of Oregon’s farmers and ranchers is clearly rising, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. As a result, the state’s agriculture director is keeping an eye on future demographics, but hopeful that the industry can stay viable enough to attract and keep younger operators. 

The aging of the Oregon farmer and rancher is a continuing trend. In the most recent census (2007), the average age of principal operator– the person most responsible for the day-to-day decisions and management of the farm– is at an all-time high of 57.5 years old. That is an increase from the 2002 census figure of 54.9 years old. As recently as 1982, the average age of principal operator was 50.4 years old. The data suggests there is a general graying of the Oregon agricultural producer. Nationally, the numbers show the same trend.

“I’m a little bit concerned by the number and not sure what all the dynamics are that might be contributing to that number,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “It’s possible that younger farm and ranch operators are simply getting out of the business. But these are numbers that were captured in 2007, so you can’t really attribute it to an overall economic downturn.”

Since the last census was taken before the recession fully impacted agricultural operations, it’s likely that a snapshot taken today would reflect an even older average age for Oregon farmers and ranchers. Some younger, less established operators may have been getting out of the business. In the previous census, the average age of Oregon’s farm and ranch operator was below the national average. Now, Oregon finds itself older than the national average of 57.1 years old. Results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture– due to be released early next year– are expected to show the trend continuing.

For ODA’s director, it gets back to the overall economic health of Oregon agriculture.

“I think we have to focus on keeping agriculture in Oregon viable and showing that the industry is a place younger people can come into,” says Coba. “Anything we can to promote a good business climate and help farmers be successful, that’s where we need to focus our attention.”

The census asks for information on up to three operators involved with the farm. These are individuals who may not be the senior operator, but are very much a part of the farm and, perhaps, in position to become the principal operator in the future. The statistics show that the second and third operators on Oregon farms are significantly younger than the principal operator. The general assumption is that these are children or other family members. Two-thirds are under the age of 55, while less than half of the principal operators are under the age of 55. Whether the new data eases concerns that Oregon agriculture is getting too old, too fast is open to debate. But some see it as a hopeful sign for the future.

“The census shows secondary operators are younger,” says Coba. “That makes more sense to me. We have a lot of younger people working on the farm. In many cases, the father is still listed as the primary operator, but it might be the son or daughter listed as a secondary operator who does a majority of the work.”

A closer look at the age data in the census shows only 109 of the state’s 38,500 principal farm operators are under the age of 25, while 3,770 are over the age of 75. In fact the number of operators under the age of 45 decreased 31 percent in 2007 compared to 2002 while the number of operators over the age of 65 increased 22 percent. Both age categories are dominated by farm owners who have less than 50 acres of land.

Another interesting set of statistics attempts to explain what kind of commodity the older farmer and rancher tend to raise or cultivate. The numbers indicate that a broad category that includes grass seed, hay, hops, mint, and sugarbeet growers is the oldest group, in general, with an average age of 58.6 years old. Beef cattle ranchers and fruit and nut growers are not far behind, both averaging 58.4 years of age. Those three categories account for about 70 percent of all Oregon operators 70 years of age or older. Among the commodities showing the youngest principal operators are hogs (average age 52.1 years old), and vegetables/melons (54.9 years old).

Where are the older farmers and ranchers? Of Oregon’s 36 counties, Wheeler claims the oldest average age at 61.9 years old followed by Curry (60.1 years old) and Coos (60.0 years old). The youngest farmers and ranchers are found in Marion, Malheur, and Harney counties– all at 56.0 years old.

Despite economic challenges, the census data demonstrates that Oregon operators are in it for the long haul. About 71 percent of the state’s 38,553 principal operators– some 27,446 farmers and ranchers– have been on their present farm for more than ten years.

Finding solutions to the aging agriculture population is important but challenging. Farm succession is a major consideration. A key focus for agriculture on a national scale is the federal estate tax law. When Congress approved a nine-month extension to the 2008 Farm Bill earlier this year, it also provided a fix for expiring estate tax terms. Under the agreement, estate taxes will not be collected on inheritances of $5 million or less per person while allowing husbands and wives to pair individual exemptions to prevent estate taxes on inheritances as large as $10 million. Those terms could go a long way towards ensuring the next generation can inherit the farm.

Programs specifically designed to help new and beginning farmers also help address the graying issue.

Director Coba says it’s not a case of young people unwilling to farm, but rather if they can make a living.

“You look at your own children,” she says. “You want them to get into a career that will allow them to succeed. If we want young people to come into farming and ranching in Oregon, we need to show them it can be a profitable venture. It gets back to having an economic environment in our state where they can be successful.”

Communities supporting agriculture and government entities being aware of regulatory impacts on farming both have a role in the competitiveness of growers and how young people may feel about agriculture as a livelihood. But it’s clear the industry needs an influx of younger operators to sustain farming and ranching.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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