Farming in the U.S. has gone through an incredible transformation in the last century, from highly diversified to highly specialized. Over that period, we’ve gone from 6.4 million farms to 2.1 million farms. Meanwhile, average farm size in the U.S. has increased from 148 acres in 1920 to 434 acres in 2012. Over the same period, Maryland went from 47,908 farms to 12,256 farms and average farm size has increased from 100 acres to 166.
From 1997 to 2012, the number of Maryland farmers age 65 and older increased by 12 percent while the number under age 35 decreased by nearly 25 percent.
It is interesting to note that in 1920 there were roughly the same number of farm owners 65+ in Maryland as there are farm operators now. However, there were 4,081 farm owner/operators <35 in Maryland in 1920 vs 603 farm operators <35 in 2012. This raises the question- who will replace our older farmers when they retire?
In 2008, the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) reported that 70% of U.S. farmland would change hands by 2028. Without adequate succession planning, CSREES reports that farms are more likely to go out of business, be absorbed by larger neighboring farms, or be converted for non-farm use. Studies have shown that family farms are only passed down successfully to the next generation about 30% of the time.
The next decade or so will be critical if we are to keep land in the families and/or create opportunities for others to farm. I have been in this job as Director of Maryland FarmLINK for three years. I had hoped that by pointing out the challenges for beginning farmers, and helping them to identify farms for sale or lease, we would make great progress. We have not.
If we don’t succeed it would be a huge missed opportunity. Our region is home to the wealthiest population in the country and those residents are spending roughly $26 billion on food. We have good soils, a climate suited to produce most crops and better than average rain fall.
Either our region can benefit from those food expenditures or some other region will. But this is not just an economic issue. Great local food chains, from seed to servings, give us control over the quality of our food, food security and food safety.
The main challenges for farmers are getting access to land, having the infrastructure to farm, having the right regulatory environment and getting level access to the markets. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss the challenges and the solutions.