Boots to fill
American agriculture faces a worker shortage as aging farmers retire and few choose to follow in their footsteps
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DAVID BLISS PULLS ON on well-worn work boots, grabs his cane, and starts making the rounds on his farm at around 6:30 a.m. each day. It’s a routine he’s followed, more or less, for 60-plus years, even as Parkinson’s disease has forced him to slow down. Though two of his tractors that plant perfectly even rows of crops are semi-automated, Bliss still drives his 1998 model to check up on every facet of his business.
Bliss rented his first piece of farmland in Illinois in 1956 from a family friend while he was still a junior in high school. He left his fields only twice: first to attend college and then for a short stint in the military. As a third-generation farmer, he developed a passion for agriculture at a young age working alongside his father and grandfather.
“Later on I just kept expanding, renting more ground, and then eventually my dad retired, and then I farmed the home place also,” Bliss said. He eventually saw the family business grow to 2,000 acres. “Another reason I’ve stayed farming all my life is that’s what I like to do.” Along with the satisfaction that comes with a successful harvest, Bliss finds joy in the farming community.
During the three years he spent in college, Bliss joined an agricultural fraternity. The friendships it started now span the world and have lasted a lifetime. They’ve taught him how to cultivate trust and good communication with his employees and business partners, something Bliss says is vital for a farm to stay healthy.
But farming success stories like his are hard to come by these days.
Young people are still interested in farming, but those hoping to launch their own operation or carry on the family business face significant barriers to entry. High input costs, healthcare costs, and difficulties finding land have made it harder for young adults to pursue a farming career.
According to the most recent data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American farmer is 57.5 years old, up from 50.5 years old in 1982. Agriculture now has the oldest workforce of any industry in the country, raising fears that the nation’s farms could soon face a worker shortage as experienced farmers retire. That could drive up the price of American goods as farms grapple with high labor and input costs.
Bliss started out growing corn and soybeans before expanding to raise hogs and cattle. As markets changed and larger operations began to dominate livestock production, Bliss narrowed his focus back to his fields. He now farms about 1,500 acres, a small business compared with many of the farms around him, but still much larger than the farms of previous generations. “All my dad ever farmed was a quarter of a section, 160 acres,” he said.
Across the country, about 893 million acres of land are used for agriculture. In an October report, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging found that about 350 million acres of farmland could change hands in the next two decades as farmers retire.
Bliss says farmers aren’t the only ones interested in buying or renting that land. And there hardly ever seems to be enough to go around. “Part of this is due to the fact that they’re taking so much land out of production,” he said. “The cities are just pouring more concrete and buying more farms, developing more, going farther out into the country.”
Since 2012, more than 20 million acres of farmland have been repurposed for development and other uses, still a small percentage of the total used for agriculture.
Peyton Sapp, a University of Georgia county extension coordinator for southeast Georgia, says farmers face pressure to sell their increasingly valuable land as they try to keep up with the costs of running their operations. “That puts more pressure on the ag economy because now you’re paying triple for tractors and double for land.”
Fertilizer is a big line item on Bliss’ balance sheet. In 2022, the cost of the nitrogen he uses to nourish his fields jumped to about $1,200 per acre, compared to about $700 per acre in 2021. The price has leveled out since then, but seed costs have also grown, especially as new, more resilient varieties are introduced. Bliss spends about $400 for a bushel of high-quality corn seeds, up from about $250 per bushel a few years ago.
Sapp has worked with farmers in southeast Georgia for decades and said the financial pressures they face now are higher than ever before. According to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, the total cost paid by American farmers to raise crops and livestock increased by more than $100 billion since 2020 to an all-time high of $460 billion in 2023.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the country’s net farm income would drop to just over $150 billion after a record high of more than $180 billion in 2022. Though farm income from 2021 to 2023 is the highest level reported in half a century, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says farmers are struggling to make a profit.
“The change in net farm income this year is reflective of overall lower prices for farmers, higher production costs and higher interest rates, and declining government payments since their 2020 record levels,” Vilsack said in a November statement.
The federal government spends about $30 billion on agriculture-related subsidies each year, money critics say distorts farming decisions and inflates land values.
HANNAH BOGGS, 24, is a first-generation farmer in Rock Hill, S.C. She started her farm, Kingdom Gardens, in 2021 on just 6,000 square feet of land, about half the size of an average residential lot. She now leases or rents 67 acres, most of which belong to a local church.
Boggs became interested in agriculture when she lived abroad and saw how much more connected people in other countries were to their food. Instead of grabbing ingredients for dinner from a supermarket, people picked up fresh produce at a local farmers market and knew their local farmers personally.
As her operation has grown, she has shifted from farming produce to incorporating chickens and hogs. Because the farm is small, Boggs makes the business sustainable by feeding her livestock vegetables and other plant waste that isn’t sold. The animals produce manure that Boggs uses to fertilize the plants.
In 2022, the National Young Farmers Coalition surveyed more than 10,000 farmers aged 40 and younger. Respondents said their top challenges included access to land, access to capital, healthcare costs, and cost of production. More than 40 percent of respondents said they had extreme difficulty finding funding to grow their businesses, and 35 percent said the input costs being higher than the income they receive for their products is a major challenge.
“It’s quite possible to find a younger person interested in farming,” Sapp said. “Sometimes the reason that they can’t get in and get started is just the sheer expense. It makes it more risky for young people to get in, and folks don’t want their kids to face all that.”
Despite those challenges, groups like the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, are thinking of new ways to show America’s youth what opportunities exist in the industry. The FFA has developed teacher training tools, virtual field trips, and career exploration programs to help students learn about how they could use their passions to support the country’s food and materials production.
Hannah Boggs does her part by contracting with other young women who are interested in farming but haven’t had a chance to dig into the industry. She gives them a chance to try it out and get their hands dirty, in hopes they’ll launch their own joint endeavors. All of the women she works with are first-generation farmers.
“We have this beautiful farm ecosystem,” she said. “It’s the ideal that it could be and that it probably will be again if our world looks anything like this in heaven or the Garden of Eden.”
David Bliss turns 86 in June. He plans to continue working for a couple more years until his longtime business partner retires. Then they’ll hold a farm sale, turn over the leases for the land they don’t own, and find people to lease and work the fields they do own. Bliss’ adult children don’t plan to take on the family business, though one of his grandsons is interested in agriculture.
“He would love to be a farmer, but there’s no way that I can extend mine on to him because it’s mostly all rented ground,” Bliss said. “A lot of people are willing to, but they just don’t have the opportunity. They just can’t make it unless they already have a family that’s very well established.”