In The News


Here are 5 key findings about the state of farming in the U.S.

Here's a look at national demographic trends in agriculture to get a bigger-picture look at the workforce today.

August 23 2023

Cleo Krejci
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Agriculture is synonymous with Wisconsin's identity: It's the state that produces more cheese than any other — 3.4 billion pounds yearly — as well as 60% of the nation's cranberries. It also spearheaded a now-national apprenticeship in dairy grazing and is home to the first registered apprenticeship for organic vegetable farm management in the U.S.

While agriculture's longstanding ties to Wisconsin are not changing, the industry itself is. One big reason: More first-generation farmers are entering the picture, bringing with them new ideas about the role farms play in society.

Here's a look at national demographic trends in agriculture to get a bigger-picture look at the workforce today.

The top challenge for young farmers: finding affordable land

The nonprofit National Young Farmers Coalition surveyed more than 4,300 farmers ages 40 and younger in 2022, with the help of the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. The biggest challenge faced by current, former and aspiring young farmers: finding land.

Among young farmers, 59% found it very or extremely challenging to find affordable land, and 45% struggled to find available land. Those issues were pervasive regardless of location in the U.S. or time spent farming.

After land use, the top issues for young farmers were: accessing funds to grow their business; paying for health care; making enough money selling their product to cover the cost to produce it; finding housing; and paying off student loan debt. Young farmers of color experienced greater difficulties across those top challenges, the survey highlighted.

Not all farms are large and rural

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers nationwide declined 67% from 1900 to 1997, representing a replacement of smaller-scale farms with larger ones.

The average farm in Wisconsin is 222 acres, according to state data, or about the size of 167 football fields.

However, the survey of young farmers showed that newcomers to the industry are working on smaller-scale setups: an average of 24 acres, when removing outliers from the dataset. While 78% of respondents worked on rural land, others farmed on suburban or urban land, in a home or community garden setting.

Not all farmers live on their land, either. Among young farmers surveyed, 63% lived on their farm. A 2017 USDA census of “producers” on U.S. farms — farmers involved in decision-making — found a higher percentage, 74%, lived on their farm.

U.S. sees more first-generation famers, farmers of color

The most recent USDA data indicates that 96% of farmer producers across the U.S. are white.

From 1900 to 1997, the percentage of Black farmers fell from 13% to 1%, according to USDA data. A lack of diversity in farming is tied to prolonged discrimination by lending institutions, federal agencies including the USDA, landowners and others, according to a 2021 report by the Congressional Research Service.

However, the percentage of farmers of color is rising. Nationally, the percentage of farmers of color rose by 8% from 2012 to 2017, while the percentage of white farmers fell by 3%.

The survey of young farmers also reflects that trend, with a much lower percentage overall — 78% — identifying as white.

More first-time farmers without family backgrounds are also entering the workforce.

According to the young farmers survey, 78% of respondents identified as “first-generation farmers.” USDA data indicated 27% of farm producers were beginners in the farming industry, meaning they had a decade or less of experience.

Farming is increasingly young and female

The average farmer involved in decision-making on a U.S. farm is 57.5 years old, according to the USDA. An aging population is a main reason why industry experts predict 371 million acres will change hands in the two decades.

Men still make up about two-thirds of farmer producers in the U.S., according to the USDA, and are most likely to hold decision-making roles on farms. For example, 83% of male respondents said they were responsible for decisions related to land use and crops compared to 59% of females.

However, that's changing. The same federal data found the number of female farmer producers grew 27% between 2012 and 2017.

Many farmers have other income sources, healthcare and student loan costs

Fewer than half of farmer producers across the U.S. — 42% — said farming was their primary occupation, according to the USDA census.

The survey of young farmers sheds some light on that figure.

About a third, or 35%, of respondents in the survey of young farmers found it very or extremely challenging to receive a price for their products that covered the cost of producing them. Two in five, or 41%, struggled to access start-up funds to get their business off the ground. Among Black, Indigenous and other farmers of color, the figure rose to 54%.

The survey of young farmers also tracked the effect of healthcare and student loans.

Nearly two in five young farmers had some student loan debt — a particular challenge for people who want to start a new business. Broken down by race, 62% of young Black farmers had student loans compared to 36% of white farmers.

Forty percent of young farmers also found it very or extremely challenging to find healthcare.

Cleo Krejci covers higher education, vocational training and retraining as a Report For America corps member based at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact her at Follow her on Twitter @_CleoKrejci. Support her work with a tax-deductible donation at .

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