The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 27, 2014

Fewer farmers a growing concern | Latest census shows disturbing trend


The Tribune-Democrat

JOHNSTOWN — Old McDonald and the Farmer in the Dell apparently are going by the wayside.

The latest five-year census of American agriculture paints a disturbing picture: The total number of farms in the United States has dropped by about 4 percent from 2007. Currently, there are 2.1 million farms in the country.

The decline might be attributed to farmers getting older. The average age of today’s farmer, according to the survey, is 58.3 years old.

“The reality is, over time, those folks won’t be able to continue farming,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“And the question for all of us is, if they don’t, who will?”

He might have answered his own question when he pointed out that there has been a slight uptick in the number of farmers ages 25-34 years old.

That could be caused by America’s effort to eat healthier, Vilsack said. That initiative pushed the national market values of crops, livestock and total agricultural products to a record $395 billion in 2012. In Pennsylvania, the total market value was about $7.4 billion, with the average farm producing about $124,000 in products yearly.

But the lure of rising profits could be offset by how much hard work is involved in farming. Anyone who has worked on a farm for a summer job or who has owned a farm can attest to the fact that farming, especially a dairy operation, is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year proposition.

“The dairy farm is a very labor-intensive operation, Matt Haan, dairy educator for Penn State Extention in Berks County, told our Patrick Buchnowski for a Visions 2014 story concerning the use of technology on dairy farms.

“Robotics are an incentive so the young farmer can have a life outside of dairy farming.”

But even high technology can’t save a farm if there is no one willing to take over the operation. Many of today’s farms have been passed down through generations of the same family. When that family tree no longer has branches willing to work the soil, the acreage is usually sold off.

And who can’t call to mind a farm that, once the owner died or sold the acreage, eventually became a shopping center or a housing development?

The survey also noted that in Pennsylvania, about half of the farm operators also have another primary occupation outside of agriculture.

Perhaps the lyrics to Arthur Fields’ circa 1900 song apply: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?”