The average age of farmers is going up. Kentucky’s young agricultural producers say it’s out of their control
Starting a farm is like starting a family. There’s a whole world of new smells, bills, stained clothes and reasons to celebrate, but it’s not easy.
Shea Lowe – who started a Calloway County farm with her husband Scott in 2002 – said the barriers for entry into the industry are significantly higher for first-generation farmers.
“When we got started we were young, but we had no family invested in the farm. None on his side, none on my side – there was just no establishment,” Lowe said. “You start from zero. You don’t own anything. I don’t think [legacy farmers] can fathom just how you would get started without a legacy.”
Lowe and her family are in the minority when it comes to farming. The Washington Post reports that around 96% of farms are multigenerational. At 41, they’re also on the low end of the age spectrum. The average age of farmers in the United States increased this year, rising from just over 56 to 57 and a half – meaning even fewer young farmers are going into the industry.
Agriculture industry experts cite a variety of reasons for this lack of young farmers.
A 2022 survey conducted by the National Young Farmers Association indicated some of the biggest challenges are “access to farmland and capital, student loan debt, access to healthcare, affordable housing and the increasing impacts of climate change.”
Farmers who weren’t born into multigenerational legacy farms often have to buy land – which costs nearly $5,000 per acre in Kentucky – in addition to paying an average of $500 per acre for farm equipment.
The Lowe family has grown soybeans, corn and tobacco since 2002. Scott Lowes learned the business from working on a farm through highschool and college with the help of a local mentor.
Shea Lowe said not having a family history in the industry, lacking proper equipment and securing finances were the biggest hurdles when starting their business. The couple secured bank loans to raise their first crops and for many years struggled to pay off their debt.
Being born into a farming family doesn’t eliminate all the challenges to entering the industry.
Ty Jones got his first calf on the day he was born.
Born into a Scottsville family that’s raised cattle and crops for seven generations, Jones has been farming in one way or another since before he could walk.
“I have a passion for agriculture, I have a passion for cows,” Jones said. “I want to continue the legacy my family has left me.”
While starting a farm has many challenges, there are also questions about the ultimate fate of many farms in the Bluegrass State. Outgoing Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles said about one third of Kentucky farmers have yet to identify who their successor will be.
“The traditional model was that a family member would take over the farming operation or somebody in the community who is already well known,” Quarles said. “An aging average age of farmers shows [it] isn’t working.”
Quarles said one of the main reasons the number of younger farmers is shrinking is because few have the capital to buy land and equipment, and banks are less likely to give loans to young farmers who can’t afford payments.
To help young farmers, the Kentucky Agriculture Finance Corporation has developed a mentorship program, which requires farmers to apply with the help of a lending agency. Applicants must also identify a mentor you will help implement their business plans.
Quarles said Kentuckians hoping to become farmers can pursue other funding avenues, including applying for aid from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund – the group that oversees the state’s tobacco settlement dollars – and seeking low interest loans from the Kentucky Agricultural Finance Corporation to help with the purchase of land.
For many farmers – like Jake Jones of Princeton – building the business is a slow process.
Jones, a 34-year-old self-employed row farmer, has tended to his family farm since he was in middle school. Now, to support himself financially, he also tends to other people's crops in his community. He said it's important to prove oneself as a farmer in order to receive the support they need.
“Whenever you’re provided with a good opportunity you better jump on it and make it work,” Jones said. “The only way to get another good opportunity is to succeed in your past opportunities. People are watching you.”
Jones said the high acreage prices discouraging farmers to buy land is reminiscent of the Farming Crisis in the 1980s, when there were high interest rates. Land prices aren’t the only economic factor causing stress for young farmers.
“If you're in ag, if you're farming, you work for everyone. You think you're working for yourself, but you're working for that hired help, you're working for that equipment dealer, you're working for that fertilizer retailer,” he said. “All of them are dependent on you to be successful to pay them what you owe them. You might think that you're self employed and you get to do whatever you want to, but that's very far from the truth.”
The financial pressures that many farmers face can lead to mental health issues – which organizations like Kentucky’s Raising Hope are trying to combat in the agricultural community.
Together, Jones and his father raise crops on roughly 2,500 acres of land in Caldwell County. He said that’s only possible because of the farming equipment owned by his family, and that growth requires saving and reinvesting profits into the farm.
“I was still living at home with my parents. So I could get by on what I was making, and all my farm money just went back into farming,” he said. “It takes a lot of self discipline and a lot of hard work and commitment to be able to do that. There's good money in farming, but it takes a long time to get to the good money. It takes years, it's an investment.”
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