Aging Farmers Not Seeking Rocking Chairs
The average age of a US farmer is increasing. With the changes in agriculture,so often it seems that once you hit 30 it’s all over. By 40 things should be running on auto pilot and by 50 – well it’s curtains. So long because there’s nothing more you can add.
OK so maybe it’s not that blunt. But there’s times it feels like it.
The average age of all U.S. principal farm operators in the 2002 Census was 55.3 years of age. This average has been more than 50 years of age since at least the 1974 Census of Agriculture and has increased in each census since 1978—usually by one year or more from one census to the next. In addition, the percentage of principal farm operators 65 or older has risen consistently since 1978 (when it was about 1 in 6) and reached 26.2 percent (more than 1 in 4) in 2002. At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of principal operators with average ages of less than 35 years has been declining since 1982, when it was 15.9 percent, and was only 5.8 percent in 2002. (On a relative basis, the percent of principal operators who are 34 years or younger has dropped about 20 percent in each subsequent census since 1982.)
These census comments point to statistics. As a society we love statistics! From football stats to bottom line production stats to how much has the top 500 companies produced. We love statistics. It’s a measure of success or failure.
And it’s cold and everything we hate for being personal and transparent. Those statistics don’t tell you about the farmer who is farming alone, for the most part, because the kids went to chase city jobs that pay more. It doesn’t show the 20somethings struggling to make the payments and find their way in the world. It doesn’t show the 30 somethings that have found it out but seek the wisdom to keep moving in the right direction for them.
And all seemingly ignored the 70 something with a lifetime of memories to share and few that are interested in talking to them. “That was then…farming has changed!” Anything before cell phone monitoring is obsolete. No one wants older 50 years ago FFA standouts to talk for their group.
It ignores the experience that is there. The tears at the loss of a favorite animal or an old dog that perhaps taught us a little about the grace of getting older. The overcautious warnings of be careful lifting, clearing footing and walkways and the memories of an injury or, for some, life lost, from not heeding it.
It’s true the youth in society grew up with electronics and instant communication. Bombardment with so many messages and so much busy that there’s not time to explore those things from ancient history. A fall is just a fall, not the means for infection and death. Perspective.
Having passed the half century mark it’s with a realization that our high school celebrity crushes are in their 60s, 70s and for some beyond that. Just a few:
David Cassidy is 63. Donny Osmond is 56. Bobby Sherman is 70. Alice Cooper is 65. Jim Neighbors (who played Gomer Pyle) is 83. Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkle) is 72. Rod Stewart is 69. Steve Perry is 64.
Of course in today’s world they’re ancient history. To those who watched them, listened to them it’s not history. It’s a long time ago but hearing David Cassidy sing “I Think I Love You” or Donny Osmond sing “Puppy Love”and it’s a transport back in time. We’re experienced but not outdated relics.
Older farmers may need to rely on adaptations for safety. Some say anyone past 60 shouldn’t be on the farm – not that their arrogant 20something self will take on the workload! For many we’ve learned to work smarter, not just harder.
The beautiful rock borders at home were torn out because it was too hard to maintain – mowing is easier when there’s no one to help with weeding. Raised gardens make it easier to keep fresh food and we have made enough collective mistakes to learn patience.
Older farmers aren’t outdated relics. The landscape may shift and valuable skills my be needed again. Who picks up the need? How many blacksmiths does the average person know? (Not horse farriers – true blacksmiths.) Many craftsman skills of even 100 years ago have been left to wither.
Like our older breeds of livestock, there’s still a use for them as agriculture shifts again. Niches are carved out and the “old fashioned” animals have a place without threatening the modern super efficient ones. Shouldn’t people be the same?
One day all will understand what it’s like to have something to share and it seems no one is interested. One day all will hear we’re too old, not youthful enough, not important or modern enough. We’ll relish being asked for opinions and those who truly listen.
For many the average 20something may be hard pressed to keep up with the average farmer today. If we listen to classic music from the 60s or 70s maybe there’s something there that still speaks to us. Maybe it’ll speak to you. Put down the tech and listen.
One day you’ll be here, if you’re lucky. And by then many of us will be gone. It used to be so far away – and a blink of an eye here we are.
With so much left to do, and good music to do it by. Sing along, and listen, if you like.