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Soybean planting

A farmer plants soybeans in a field in Springfield, Neb., Thursday, May 23, 2019.

Nebraska faces a future workforce shortage, with the number of baby boomers set to retire anticipated to exceed the available replacement employees within the next decade or two.

Perhaps no industry will face more of a resulting upheaval than agriculture.

The median age of farmers and ranchers eclipsed yet another record, reaching 56.4 years in both this state and country in 2017, at a time when the labor force as a whole got younger. By doing so, production agriculture further cemented its position as having the oldest workers of any major occupation in the country, according to the Current Population Survey.

Accordingly, government officials, trade groups and other related agencies must begin preparations now to head off this trend before it reaches a tipping point.

The most recent Census of Agriculture, released in April by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, highlighted myriad troubling trends in Nebraska’s leading industry we laid out in an editorial that month.

From 2012 to 2017, the years the report covered, the number of Nebraska producers younger than 25 has increased by all of 23 farmers. Those between the ages of 25 and 44, meanwhile, have dropped over the same span.

More Nebraskans from 55 to 64 years old (22,517 people) were identified as farm producers than all those younger than 44 (17,503). The next largest was the 65-to-74 age bracket (15,676). And the fastest-growing age bracket was for farmers 75 and older, which increased by more than 26% in the five years between surveys and mirrors national trends.

No doubt technology can help older ag producers stay on the job longer, as detailed in a piece by the Associated Press last week. But, at some point, those farmers and ranchers will have to leave their operations.

And then what?

Rural areas have long battled against depopulation as the landscape has gradually shifted from smaller family farms to much larger operations that require fewer workers. This ticking time bomb could detonate a couple of decades down the road, and Nebraska must be prepared for what follows.

A handful of programs exist to reduce the massive barriers to entry for young farmers or other demographic groups underrepresented in agriculture. These efforts, many of which use grant money or easements for this purpose, hold promise as one of the best investments that can mitigate pitfalls associated with this transition.

Breaking into agriculture can be nearly impossible for those who aren’t born into it, given the price of land and implements. Some estimates place the startup costs at $1 million or more, which is far beyond the financial means of anyone interested entering this field – particularly at this time of low commodity prices.

Reversing the tide ahead of an impending wave of farm retirements may well be impossible. Mitigating the flood, however, seems well within reach, with ample preparation.

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