It goes by many names, including swan song, trail's end, last dance and last harvest. Whatever the name, it's a veteran farmer's final crop season — the one that ends a long and challenging but rewarding farming career.
Deciding when to bow out of farming is seldom easy or simple, especially when the family farm or ranch has been a cornerstone of the agriculturalist's life. Age, health, crop prices, family situation and financial status can complicate and add emotion to the decision. Safety concerns often are a factor, too, since aging farmers unavoidably react a little slower than they once did. As the National Ag Safety Database puts it, "Age becomes a serious factor when considering potential risk" for farmers.
Not only aging farmers are affected. Modern U.S. ag is still dominated by family farms, so the younger generation of farmers — sons and daughters, sons- and daughters-in-law, nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons — usually will feel the absence of their older relatives in fields and farm shops. Besides missing the older relative's insights and camaraderie, the younger farmer may need to hire help to replace what the retiring farmer had provided.
With 34% of America's farmers over the age of 65, the issue of aging farmers stepping away becomes more relevant than ever. To put that in perspective, only 14% of all self-employed U.S. workers in non-ag business are 65 or older.
Two more sets of numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent and reliable source of information on farmers' age, drive home the point:
- In 2017, 757,936 farmers were 65-74 years of age, up from 600,945 in 2012. That's an increase of 26%.
- Also in 2017, 396,106 farmers were 75 or older, up from 314,829 five years earlier. That's an increase of 27%.
Put differently, there were roughly five farmers over the age of 65 in 2017 for every four farmers in that age bracket in 2012. Part of the rise, of course, reflects Americans on average living longer, which can encourage farmers to stay active longer, too. Even so, the increases are striking.
Agweek staff writer Jonathan Knutson plans an Agweek cover package later this year that profiles several aging farmers who plan to leave farming after the 2021 crop season. He wants to visit this spring and fall with those producers and also, if applicable, their younger relatives who will carry on the farming operation. He's looking for people who will talk openly and honestly about the joys and stresses, challenges and rewards, in the final year of farming.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you prefer to visit in person, at 701-280-1480. The deadline to nominate a farmer is March 29. In the nominating email or phone call, please provide the following information: the farmer's name, age and hometown; a short description of his or her farming career; and his or her email address and telephone number.
Aging farmers nearing retirement is an issue that cuts to the core of modern Upper Midwest agriculture. It's an important story that deserves to be told. With your help, it will be.