Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Nathan Smith, Field Editor for the Texas Farm Bureau and was originally posted at the Texas Agriculture Talks website.
I was driving through West Texas recently and George Jones’ ballad, “Who’s Going to Fill Their Shoes” came on the radio. I am a big fan of “the possum” and have heard this song dozens of times, but driving through the heart of Texas cotton country, it struck me a little differently.
The song talks about the pioneers of country music and the legacy they will leave. The hook comes when Jones asks, who will take their place?
Looking out at the setting sun over blooming cotton and shelled corn fields, I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing about Texas farmers.
Who is going to take their place? Maybe more importantly, how will they be replaced?
Most Texans are fortunate enough to have never had to ask where they will find their next meal. Grocery store shelves overflow with bounty and variety.
Everything on those shelves got started in a field or pasture by some farmer or rancher. It passed through many hands to get to a shelf, but without a willing grower, it wouldn’t be there.
Consider the following information and let your mind wander as mine did.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average American farmer was 57.1 years old–nearly 17 years older than the average American worker.
By the USDA’s calculations, the rapidly increasing age of American farmers is no short-lived trend. And no one is rushing to replace farmers who pass away or retire.
According to statistics, farmers and ranchers are twice as likely than other professions to work past 65 years of age.
Yes, farming is noble, it’s rewarding–but it’s still hard work. It can also be dangerous and top it all off with heavy risks and capital-intensive start-up costs.
So where have all the farmers gone?
Most operations in Texas are handed down from one generation to the next. As the baby boomer generation retires, they leave children drawn to urban centers and promise of economic stability. They’ve largely said goodbye to the farm and its roots.
That leaves the best agricultural production areas and states with the highest concentration of aging adults.
What does an industry with fewer and older farmers look like? Are the signs pointing to the end of the family operator?
My gut tells me no. Still, the problem is startling.
Farming has always been a family endeavor. It’s true, we likely will see fewer large operations held together by a single family, but smaller farming families have the chance to see additional income through a smaller operation.
Farmers and ranchers are experts at overcoming adversity and most meet great hurdles at a young age. Try to keep a young man or woman with a passion for farming out of the field. You won’t find it so easy.
There are programs and grants available, but mostly they only offer supplemental assistance. The programs might offer some incentive, but they aren’t fixing the problem.
The answer to the question, who’s going to fill their shoes, is a tough one. I hope Texas and America has that answer soon.
Send your thoughts on encouraging young farmers and ranchers to firstname.lastname@example.org.