Arizona’s farmers are getting older — a lot older.
The average age of a principal farm operator in the state is 61.1 years old, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That age has risen steadily over the past three decades from 50.5 in 1982.
Farmers, officials and students exploring careers in agriculture expressed their own views on why that average age continues to rise in the state and whether that means fewer want to be farmers.
Research conducted by the USDA concluded that because of advancements in health care and technology, farmers are able to work on their land longer than in the past.
“Part of it is that farmers live on their farms so they can phase out production gradually over time,” said Bob Hoppe, an agriculture economist with the USDA Economic Research Service. “This isn’t like a factory job where you quit when you’re 62 or 65.”
Alan Seitz, a farmer in Cochise County, said technology has made working much less arduous for him and other agricultural workers.
“Farming, physically, has been way easier than it has been,” Seitz said. “In some of these operations, you could literally read a magazine while you’re going through a field, whereas historically you would have 100 percent of your attention focused on what you’re doing in the field.”
Arizona’s average age for farmers is also higher than the national average of 58.3 for 2012. While that average will eventually have to stabilize, there is no sign that number is going to level off any time soon, Hoppe said. Thirty-four percent of principal farm operators in the U.S. were above the age of 65 in 2014, according to USDA research.
Sarah Odele, an agriculture teacher at Tombstone High School, believes the answer to why the average age continues to rise may be simpler: Younger generations are not that interested in taking over the family farm.
Odele, who leads the Future Farmers of America club at Tombstone, said among other things, educational opportunities have expanded for students in rural, agricultural communities. The need to go back to the farm to make a living is not as great as it once was generations ago, she said.
“Things have transitioned in agriculture and you have more options in the whole field itself, too,” she said.
FFA programs at high schools help prepare students interested in agricultural careers. This includes competitions, work-based learning and lab instruction in several areas of agriculture.
Jacob Bohlen, 17, who is a Tombstone High School student in FFA, has no plans to take over his family’s ostrich ranch after he finishes schooling. It’s not something that interests him, he said.
He does plan to stay in the agriculture business by getting a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and genetics.
“There are so many higher-paid opportunities for these kids now,” said Moiria White, an agriculture and science teacher at Willcox High School, where about half of the school’s roughly 400 students are involved in agriculture programs.
Hayden Haas, 18, a Willcox student, is a fourth-generation farmer. He said he plans on coming back and working on his family’s Cochise County farm — which grows corn, barley and pinto beans — after he goes to college and gets a degree.
Due to a strong farming culture in Willcox, Haas said, more students do end up going into agricultural jobs than they would at other places.
“A lot of the families around here are big and have long generations of farming and ranching, so a lot of them do return back, but not all of them,” Haas said.
It’s not always possible, however, for someone to come back and take over the family farm, Haas said.
Luke Todd, 18, another Willcox student, said his older siblings could come back and take over the farm, which would preclude him because the operation can’t support more than one family.
“I might come back to this area, but … one limit is that there is not the need a lot of time for you to come back and work,” Todd said.
Getting in to agriculture can also be quite expensive.
Between costs for farmland and equipment, weather factors and having the ability to absorb losses, it can be hard for to start in farming without inheriting the land, said Seitz, the Cochise County farmer.
“It’s a tough way to make a living,” Seitz said. “Mother Nature can throw you some curve balls some years that can be very costly. A lot of young folks just don’t want that uncertainty.”
Some farmers also lay some of the blame on the federal estate tax.
Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said the tax makes it far too costly for farmers or ranchers to pass on property to their children.
Currently, the federal estate tax kicks in when someone dies and the value of that person’s property is more than $5.43 million. To inherit that property, a family member would need to pay a certain percentage in taxes. The estate tax exemption amount and the tax rate has fluctuated over the years with legislation.
Killian, who plans on passing on his agricultural business to his sons, called the tax “the number one contributor to getting rid of the family farm.”
“Most families can’t come up with that kind of money and they have to sell,” he said. “So, they end up selling to large conglomerates, and that’s why you’re seeing the average age going up. It’s more difficult for young farmers to have the capital necessary to get started.”
White, the Willcox High School teacher, is familiar with this issue.
A few years back, she and her siblings faced a tax bill of more than $2 million when they looked to inherit the family ranch they grew up on near Holbrook. An outside operation ended up paying much of the tax cost. “There was the potential of losing the ranch because of the taxes,” she said.
The USDA, however, estimates that just about 0.8 percent of farms in the U.S. would be required to pay the federal estate tax, given how high the value of a property would have to be to meet the federal threshold.
White also points to larger farming operations taking over farming in Arizona, where families no longer want, or can do, the job.
About 97 percent of all farms in the U.S. are family-owned, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture. But the 3 percent of farms considered “large” or “very large” are responsible for about two-thirds of vegetable and dairy sales.
These larger operations can absorb the losses that an ordinary farmer or rancher wouldn’t be able to, White said.
“A lot of times, it’s easier for these kids who do inherit the farm to just sell it,” White said. “It’s a daunting prospect.”
Ethan McSweeney is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the school of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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