PAXTON, Ill. — At age 80, Melvin Coulter is an active part of the family farm near Paxton. He doesn’t worry too much about the future of his farm because the next generation is on the rise.
There has been talk of concern about the “aging farmer,” which comes with the steady rise in the average age of farmers since statistics were first reported in the 1945 Census. Then the average age of a farmer was 48.7. By the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the mean age of principal farm operators in Illinois was 57.8 years, says Todd Kuethe, University of Illinois ag economist.
But, he says a closer look at data shows that the concern may be overstated.
Some people get in a “panic state” over the average age of farmers today, Kuethe says. He isn’t a big fan of averages because they may tell a misleading story. Agriculture isn’t coming to an end because of the age of farmers, he says.
One factor in the data on aging farmers is how the USDA defines a farm, Kuethe says. A farm is defined as a location which in a typical year produces more than $1,000 in agricultural production. These smaller farms could involve a retired farmer who keeps a few cattle.
“The dream in Missouri is to retire from your job and have a small cattle operation,” Kuethe says. These situations skew the numbers a bit.
While there are considerably more farmers in the 65 and over bracket, he points out that the bulk of production is from farmers in the 55 to 64 age group.
The USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey, published Dec. 8, 2016, shows that in Missouri, for example, the total value of production last year for the 55 to 64 age bracket was approximately $3.2 million compared to approximately $2.4 million for those over 65.
Those in the 45 to 54 age group also produced close to the same amount as the oldest group even though their numbers are fewer.
The trend may be less alarming when compared to the general workforce. Carl Zulauf, ag economist with The Ohio State University, noted in a 2013 farmdoc report that the trend of farmer age isn’t so different from that of the general workforce. In 2007, the average age of U.S. farmers exceeded the 2010 median age of the U.S. labor force by 15.4 years.
“This difference had not changed much since 1980, implying that U.S. farmers and the U.S. labor force are aging in concert — if anything, farmers are aging somewhat slower,” Zulauf reported.
Farmers are older than the U.S. labor force partially because farming is capital intensive.
“It takes time for someone to accumulate the capital necessary to compete in U.S.-style farming, either through inheritance or savings or both,” Zulauf says.
He also noted that periods of prosperity, as in the 1970s, help bring new farmers into the business. Not so long ago, high commodity prices brought some farmers back to agriculture, and in recent years some young people are returning to expanding livestock operations.
Andrew Larson, University of Illinois ag economist, says the number of farmers fell from 2 million to 1 million in a short time, which also affects average ages.
Older farmers may not want to ease out of the occupation until the next generation is in their 40s and 50s and have other established careers. It may be difficult for the middle generation to leave a predictable salary to go the unpredictability of a farming career at that age.
“Going into farming is a career choice that is hard to explain rationally,” Larson says.
But “don’t expect farmers to go extinct,” Kuethe says, there are new generations coming.
That is the case on the Coulter farm.
Coulter Farms has existed in central Illinois since 1897, according to the large rock in the front yard of the thriving pork and crop operation in Paxton. The patriarch of the family, Melvin Coulter, says he’s “partially retired” at age 80. Now he likes to take more time off and doesn’t work quite as hard.
“I don’t draw as much money as the rest,” he says.
Coulter’s main duties center on the pig nursery. He oversees 1,000 incoming piglets every 21 days, and cares for them from when they arrive in the nursery at 13 pounds until they move on at 45 pounds.
He is also in charge of checking driers at night during harvest as well as running errands year-round.
His sons, Dan and Matt, and Aaron Bertan, the non-family member of the limited liability company, look after the finishing hog barns. Rounding out the company are Coulter’s grandsons, Ben and Drew, who do a lot of the machinery repair and field work.
Coulter, who bought the farm from his grandfather in 1963, says they weren’t really ready to sell but wanted to keep the farm in the family.
“We started with four sows, 124 leased acres and a $1,800 private loan,” he says. Today the operation has 780 sows and 1,900 acres.
“We must be prosperous; we owe a lot more loans,” he joked.
Kuethe, a professor who teaches farm management level classes mostly for seniors at the University of Illinois, says most of his students have a long term goal of working for the traditional family farm at some point.
Age statistics can also be distorted by young people who don’t consider farming to be their primary source of income, even though they intend it to be eventually, he says.
Kuethe also notes there are several government programs offered to young and beginning farmers.
“We have a strong institutional desire” to foster the next generation of farmers, he says. “If there is a problem (with aging farmers), we are managing it.”